Quick Review: LEADERSHIP by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster)

GoodwinDK-LeadershipUSAn excellent examination of four presidents, their development into leaders, and how they overcame the challenges they faced

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the leader make the times or do the times make the leader?

In Leadership, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights) — to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. By looking back to their first entries into public life, we encounter them at a time when their paths were filled with confusion, fear, and hope.

Leadership tells the story of how they all collided with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times.

No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

This seminal work provides an accessible and essential road map for aspiring and established leaders in every field. In today’s polarized world, these stories of authentic leadership in times of apprehension and fracture take on a singular urgency.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the best presidential historians working today. Best known for her superb, exhaustive biography of Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet and presidency, Team of Rivals, Goodwin has also written substantial biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson (who she worked for), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. In Leadership, she examines how Lincoln, Johnson, FDR and TR developed into the leadership roles they inhabited. It is an excellent distillation of her previous scholarship with that specific question in mind. Engaging, rigorous, and illuminating, this is an excellent history.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition?

These are the questions Goodwin attempts to answer in this new book. Split into three parts, and alternating chronologically between the presidents, it is a fascinating comparative study. By rotating between the four men, the author is able to offer clearer comparisons, and frequently refers back to preceding presidents and their struggles, and how they influenced and inspired the others — as it happens, each was most inspired by the one who came before them; although FDR, TR and LBJ were all clearly inspired by Lincoln (who isn’t?).

In Part One, Goodwin briefly outlines the path each of the four men took into public life. Goodwin shows how different each of these men was in their twenties, when they began to forge their public identities, to “the sober, iconic countenances that have since saturated our culture, currency, and memorial sculpture.” None of the four appeared destined for greatness. “Their stories abound in confusion, hope, failure, and fear,” and each of them stumbled and made mistakes due to “inexperience, cockiness, lack of caution, outright misjudgments, and selfishness”. Part One describes how each future president overcame their mistakes.

They were united… by a fierce ambition, an inordinate drive to succeed. With perseverance and hard work, they all essentially made themselves leaders by enhancing and developing the qualities they were given.

In Part Two, Goodwin covers the “Dramatic reversals that shattered the private and public lives of all four men”, events that “ruptured their sense of self and threatened to curtail their prospects…”

Abraham Lincoln suffered a blow to his public reputation and his private sense of honor that led to a near-suicidal depression; Theodore Roosevelt lost his young wife and mother on the same day; Franklin Roosevelt was struck by polio and left permanently paralyzed from the waist down; Lyndon Johnson lost an election to the United States Senate.

In Part Three, Goodwin turns to the four presidencies. There, “at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.” Goodwin selects specific examples for each president to explore the question of whether or not leaders shape the times, or if they are shaped by their time.

The portraits Goodwin draws of each of these presidents is fascinating and nuanced. The author covers times when they shone and also those when their behaviour was less-than-exemplary — even Lincoln, sometimes, went too far with his “raillery” and cutting remarks, and he was sometimes hesitant to proclaim too loudly his abolitionist beliefs. Goodwin does an excellent job of looking at many sides of each subject, and really plumbs their lives to find examples of successes and failures that informed the development of their leadership styles. Teddy Roosevelt’s work on the NY police force is vividly described, as is his time in the NY legislature; LBJ’s long work in civil rights legislation, but also his short period hiding this preference; FDR’s struggles with recovery post-polio, and his personal and emotional struggles.

GoodwinDK-LeadershipUKEven if you have read Goodwin’s previous biographies, the content feels fresh and interesting — in part, because the examples are often chosen specifically with the idea of “leadership” in mind, but also because Goodwin’s prose is so accessible and expertly composed. There is an enthusiasm for her subjects that shines through. The sections covering Johnson, in particular, were fascinating, as the author was able to draw on her considerable experience working for and with LBJ — as a White House Fellow and later helping the retired president with his memoirs. It was certainly interesting to read of how similar each of these men was before they entered the White House, despite their quite different upbringings — the Roosevelts were incredibly wealthy, while Lincoln and Johnson were born in poverty.

As an aside, I especially liked this:

… however dissimilar their upbringings, books became for both Lincoln and Roosevelt “the greatest of companions.” Every day for the rest of their lives, both men set aside time for reading, snatching moments while waiting for meals, between visitors, or lying in bed before sleep.

Now this I can certainly relate to; although, unlike Lincoln, whose father constantly ripped books out of his son’s hands, my parents were more like TR’s, and gave us constant access to books.

Each man was fascinating in his own way, and each of them does offer inspiration for many today. Whether someone is suffering from depression (as did Lincoln) or physical difficulties (FDR), there is much to inspire. With mental health a particularly prominent concern today, Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression will resonate with many.

Goodwin really captures the characters of these four men, in anecdotes, speeches, and contemporary reflections. Perhaps none more so than this description, about Teddy Roosevelt:

Nor did he abandon his interest in birds, tramping miles from Cambridge to observe them, shoot them, and stuff them.

I’ve read three of Goodwin’s other books: Team of Rivals (Lincoln), Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, and The Bully Pulpit (Teddy Roosevelt and Taft). Each of these was an excellent, substantial biography of the president(s) in question. I was a little disappointed with Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, but luckily the Johnson portions in Leadership were considerably better, and in some ways the most interesting to me (perhaps because I felt less well-informed about LBJ than the other three).

I could write about this book for a lot longer, but I shall close out with this summation: If you have any interest in the presidency (in general or just these specific men), leadership and/or American history, then I would highly recommend this book. The pacing is, for the main, excellent; the author’s prose are accessible and fluid; and the content is engaging and thought-provoking.


Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership is published in North America by Simon & Schuster (September 18th) and in the UK by Penguin (September 20th).

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