Doris Kearns Goodwin may just be the only person who can authentically describe Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson as “my guys.”
After all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has spent five decades researching and getting to know these U.S. presidents’ innermost fears, vulnerabilities, personal struggles, hopes and dreams.
Goodwin shared some of her most salient insights during a sold-out talk at Macky Auditorium on Thursday. Her talk (and the name of her newest book), “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” was this year’s marquee event in the fourth annual Leo Hill Leadership Speaker Series. The series is overseen by the Newton Chair in Leadership, a position held by Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano.
She described how she danced with President Johnson, worked for him, and helped him write his memoirs at the end of his life.
“He was a great storyteller,” she reflected. “Many were not true, but they were great. I loved listening to his tall tales.”
Goodwin did not directly discuss the elephant in the room: the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump or the extreme partisanship afflicting the nation, other than to say: “As difficult as the situation is today, we have lived through far more troubled times before.”
Populism was stirred while Teddy Roosevelt was president, and there was a “fear that democracy itself was at risk.”
“Never think you can bet against this country, never believe it’s as fragile as you think,” she said.
She addressed whether leaders are born or made, and touched on six traits these particular presidents had in common.
- Empathy: She described empathy as the most important trait a leader can have. She said that Lincoln came to the job with great empathy. Others learned over time.
- Work ethos: “They all made themselves leaders by an extraordinary work ethos, and a drive for success.”
- Accessibility: She said it’s key to make yourself accessible to your constituents.
- Communication: They mastered the communications of their time – the way Trump is mastering direct communication now on Twitter.
- Reflection: She said the most underappreciated trait is the ability to find time to think, relax and replenish one’s energy.
“They were all able to translate ambition for self into ambition for the greater good.”
After her talk, she joined DiStefano for a conversation. The chancellor also posed questions from students. He asked her what responsibility the university has to prepare students for their own personal trials.
“They will go through trials as everybody does,” she said, noting that struggles are the source of human wisdom.
What advice did she have for future leaders?
“Get as many experiences wherever you can get them.”
On Friday morning, Goodwin met with students in for a Q&A session at Wolf Law.