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Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts presidential ‘leadership lessons’

| Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has studied, interacted with and written about numerous presidents of the United States. On Tuesday night, Goodwin shared some of her observations of them with a packed auditorium at her lecture, “Leadership Lessons from the White House.”

The talk was the 11th annual Christian Culture Lecture Series, hosted by the Humanistic Studies Department at Saint Mary’s.

At the age of 24, Goodwin was a White House Fellow under the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Spending hours with Johnson and listening to his stories and memories fired a drive in her to understand the inner person behind the public figure, she said.

Goodwin has written on presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), all of whom were exceptional leaders, she said.

“Lincoln was blessed with a poetic gift and a profound sense of empathy, Teddy with an irrepressible energy and curiosity, FDR with a phenomenal memory and first rate temperament, and they shared what is perhaps the most critical aspect for a good leader: the ability to withstand adversity,” Goodwin said.

She said Lincoln overcame adversity by imbuing his life with an ambition to leave the world a better place because he was there. Teddy Roosevelt overcame his share of losses by using constant activity to bounce back, as when he went to the Badlands to recover from multiple family deaths. FDR’s strong faith and humility of spirit pulled him through times of crisis, Goodwin said.

All three presidents also surrounded themselves with strong staffs, Goodwin said. Lincoln famously appointed a cabinet Goodwin referred to as a “Team of Rivals” in the title of her book on Lincoln, while FDR’s wife Eleanor was his “weapon” who compensated for his weaknesses.

Goodwin said FDR did not necessarily form a team of rivals, but he formed an inner circle where all could speak their mind, and Teddy Roosevelt linked together success and perseverance. She said despite some differences in leadership techniques, all the men moved their leadership abilities forward.

“All three men kept growing, taking time to be self-reflective, learning from their failures and mistakes and turning those failures into success,” she said.

A leader naturally experiences complications and frustrations, and the three presidents had ways of dealing with this as well, Goodwin said. Lincoln would write “hot letters” in response to stressful situations to get a hold of his anger, and then not send the letter. Goodwin said President Obama does this as well.

FDR would insert fiery references into drafts of his speeches, pinpointing specific people and situations with which he was frustrated. Through the editing process, these harsh points would be removed, but the exercises of both Lincoln and FDR allowed the men to think through situations before acting rashly, Goodwin said.

“They all figured out ways to stay connected to the people they served, a critical aspect in a democracy,” she said.

Connection and communication with the people is very important, Goodwin said. Lincoln traveled to the battlefield a dozen times during the Civil War, and Teddy Roosevelt traveled across the country by train, interacting with common people along the way. FDR would bring people together in conversation at cocktail hours, she said.

Goodwin said each president communicated with his people in the way proper for the time period.

Lincoln was especially good with communication through his speeches, such as his second inaugural speech which he infused spiritual faith and politics. Teddy Roosevelt’s punchy style was suited to press, she said. FDR was ideal for speaking during the radio age, as seen in an address he delivered on D-day in the form of a prayer.

“All three men left behind legacies that reveal a moral aspect to their leadership purpose behind their power, leaving behind programs and legislation that advanced the cause of liberty, economic opportunity and social justice,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin said stories live on in memories, and that she learned history through recounting Dodgers baseball games to her father when she was young.

“I shall always be thankful for this curious love of history, allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to believe that the private people we have loved and lost in our families, and the public figures we have respected in history … really can live on, so long as we pledge to tell and to retell the stories of their lives,” she said.

The 2017 Christian Culture Lecture, taking place next October, will feature author Margaret Atwood.

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About Kathryn Marshall

Kathryn Marshall, Saint Mary's College '17, is a Biology and Humanistic Studies double major. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @kmarshallSMC

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