By: Jim Roddy, VP of Marketing at the RSPA
I’ve wanted to share my thoughts on Leadership in Turbulent Times, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterpiece profiling U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, since I read the book in 2019, but I was waiting for the 2020 election cycle to pass to avoid any political controversy. A book titled “Leadership in Turbulent Times” is exactly what we need these days, I think.
My excerpts won’t do justice to Kearns Goodwin’s 496-page study, but I hope they offer us leadership guidance for the storms we’re currently weathering:
- Theodore, Franklin, Lincoln, and Johnson 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.
- This book will show how their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock. No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges and notches along its blade.
- “I put myself in the way of things happening, and they happened.”
- He was quick to find the real man in very simple men. “No man is superior, unless it was by merit, and no man is inferior, unless by his demerit.”
- Roosevelt fought for what he believed but accepted defeat with good humor.
- “There is nothing brilliant or outstanding about my record, except perhaps for one thing. When I make up my mind to do a thing, I act.”
- Any man who has been successful, Roosevelt repeatedly said, has leapt at opportunities chance provides. “I knew I might fail; but I made up my mind that if I did fail it should at least not be because of adopting the attitude of fearing to try anything.”
- “Don’t hit unless you have to, but when you hit, hit hard.”
- FDR had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Roosevelt’s self-assured, congenial, optimistic temperament was the keystone to his leadership success.
- What was evident in the end was the fact that the cheerful, gregarious, disarmingly glamorous young man had out-worked, out-traveled, and out-strategized Republicans by simply listening to the hopes and needs of whoever crossed his path.
- Hoover would not admit that voluntary activities had failed. He adopted a bunker mentality, refusing to countenance the worsening situation. By contrast, Roosevelt had adapted all his life to changing circumstances.
- The Inauguration Day of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began in prayer and ended in action. Immediately beneath the skin of vision lay the sinew and bone of pragmatic action.
- “The remarkable thing about him was his readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile.”
- “I am told that what I am about to do will become impossible, but I am going to try it.”
- The greatest human tribute is that because one man (FDR) died 130 million feel lonely.
- “Ambition is an uncomfortable companion. He creates discontent with present surroundings and achievements: he’s never satisfied but always pressing forward.”
- “A five-minute speech with 15 minutes spent afterwards is much more effective than a 15-minute speech, no matter how inspiring, that leaves only five minutes for handshaking.”
- No detail of the legislative process eluded him. “Every day, every hour, it was drive, drive, drive.”
- Stronger than an army is an idea whose time has come.
- During the first 10 months of his presidency, Johnson invited every member of Congress to the White House. “There is but one way for a President to deal with Congress and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption.”
- Lincoln possessed a fierce, almost irresistible compulsion to understand the meaning of what he heard, read, or was taught. “I’ll study and get ready, and then the chance will come.”
- “We followed his lead, but he followed nobody’s lead; he hewed the way for us to follow, and we gladly did so.”
- He aimed for intimate conversations with the jurors, as if conversing with friends. Though his arguments were logical and profound, they were easy to follow.
- He never allowed his ambition to consume his kindheartedness.
- “No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.”
- When angry at a colleague, Lincoln would fling off what he called a “hot” letter, releasing all his pent wrath. He would then put the letter aside until he cooled down and could attend the matter with a clearer eye.
- Lincoln never forgot that in a democracy the leader’s strength ultimately depends on the strength of his bond with the people.
- Such leadership offers us humanity, purpose, and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives.
RSPA Recommended Read Rating: 9.75/10
What lessons can SMB leaders learn from a study of four Presidents?
- Perspective and Reassurance: VARs and ISVs made some really difficult calls in 2020 – where to cut, where to invest, who to layoff, which loans to apply for, how to communicate to the team and to customers, etc. But we weren’t tasked with pulling an entire country out of the Depression like FDR, and we weren’t called to heal a fractured nation like Lincoln. Their ability to keep their heads amid unprecedented crises show that we can, too.
- No Shortcuts: Success isn’t granted to geniuses; it’s available to those who put in the work. Each of these leaders possessed a work ethic that set the pace for their contemporaries, rising earlier and staying later to achieve the outcome. They didn’t shortcut their communication either, whether it was LBJ working with Congress to pass legislation or Lincoln cooling down to ensure his words matched the moment.
- No Perfect Template: Theodore and Franklin shared a last name but their leadership tactics were far from identical. Teddy “hit hard” while FDR was “congenial, cheerful, and gregarious.” Lincoln was kindhearted while Johnson was prone to outbursts, struggling with self-inflicted stress and his temper until his death. “No key is exactly the same,” Kearns Goodwin wrote, a message for us to apply our unique abilities to the situations we face. Our best, applying our unique skills, is all we can do.
- Try, Test, Measure, Adapt, Repeat: I incorporate that message into nearly all of my presentations to SMB executives. The answers aren’t hiding somewhere on your laptop, and they won’t arrive tonight or tomorrow or the next day through divine providence. You and your team must engage with today’s challenges and determine what works (and what doesn’t) using your elbow grease. As FDR said, “Above all, try something.”
Purchase your copy of Leadership in Turbulent Times here.