Credit: Elsa Jenna

I planned to write about another book this week, but the troubling events in our country overpowered pretty much everything else, and I decided to change tack. As I’m sure is true of many of you, I never imagined a violent insurrection successfully invading the US Capitol after being incited by the president—and all of the profound fear and uncertainty such a scenario entails.

My instinct is to look to history—and in this instance I picked up from my bookshelf Leadership in Turbulent Times, a 2018 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Unlike other books I cover in this newsletter, it’s not a new release and not strictly business in scope. It’s also not especially focused on resetting how our organizations work. 

But the focus on leadership in tough times seems like what’s needed now—for pretty much all of us—and I hope that you find these lessons from history useful as well. 

Goodwin focuses in Leadership on the seminal trials of four US presidents she’s written separate books about: Abraham Lincoln’s path to the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt’s resolution of the Great Coal Strike of 1902, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agenda-setting first 100 days in office, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of civil rights legislation. The episodes are presented as case studies, with leadership lessons identified along the way—there’s a lot for members of the Biden administration to study closely, and also useful insights for the rest of us. Among them:

Gather firsthand information and invite dissenting opinions. 

  • Lincoln spent a few hours in the mornings meeting with ordinary people who lined up outside his office—time he described as “public opinion baths.” (p. 368) His visits with rank-and-file troops made him realize that the labor which slaves provided the South was a military advantage, so emancipating them would aid the war effort as well. (p. 214) Lincoln’s accessibility also earned him broad respect and loyalty. (p. 236)
  • Goodwin has helped make famous Lincoln’s success leading a “team of rivals.” In the case of the Emancipation Proclamation, dissenting views from his cabinet led him to  delay issuing it until momentum was swinging more in the Union army’s direction. (p. 218) 
  • FDR similarly encouraged disagreements among deputies to air different viewpoints, then he’d lead them to reconciliation. (p. 296) He also briefed different stakeholders before announcing policies to build consensus. (p. 284)
  • “Go and see what’s happening,” FDR told his aides. “See the end product of what we are doing. Talk to people; get the wind in your nose.” Eleanor Roosevelt, who traveled extensively around the US, broughts reports back to FDR. (p. 300)
  • LBJ’s failure in Vietnam was due partly to his distance from what was going on, and lack of firsthand understanding—unlike with the domestic issues he was more confident on. (p. 339)

Anchor your leadership in genuine purpose and vision. 

  • Assuming leadership in the depths of the Depression, FDR told Americans that they had not failed, and offered a new compact between government and citizens. (p. 278) 
  • LBJ’s detailed vision for his presidential agenda coalesced as he sat with several aides on his bed the night that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was rooted in his core belief, instilled by his father, that government existed to help those who needed it. LBJ distilled his agenda to two initial goals: a tax cut to revive the economy and civil rights legislation, and used narrative stories to sell them to skeptics. (p. 317)

Set ambitious goals and drive toward them. 

  • FDR assembled a cabinet of people with a “bias for action.” (p. 282) 
  • He declared a weeklong bank holiday and during that time pushed through legislation that shored up the financial system and made it possible for banks to reopen in stable conditions. The work was breakneck, but met the urgency of the moment. (p. 285)
  • “Every day, every hour, it was drive, drive, drive,” an aide said of LBJ. He personally made calls at every stage of pushing tax legislation through, including to keep the plant open at night to print the materials for Congress. (p. 315)

Celebrate victories to move forward. Leave a record for the future.

  • LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in the same room where Lincoln had signed a bill freeing fugitive slaves, declaring “the struggle for equality must move toward a different battlefield. It is nothing less than granting every American Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” (p. 337)
  • With the conclusion of the coal strike, Teddy Roosevelt wrote a 3,000-word letter recounting the episode in detail, to explain the circumstances so it wouldn’t be used to justify warrantless expansion of executive power in the future. (p. 271)

Find time and space to think and recharge. 

  • Lincoln moved with his family to a complex for disabled veterans from June until mid-October 1862 to escape the crush of White House activity and visitors and reflect on how to approach emancipation. (p. 215) He attended more than 100 theater performances while president, finding there “respite and renewal.” (p. 228)
  • Teddy Roosevelt used physical activity to keep “mental balance,” playing tennis, hiking, boxing, and then turning to literature when injury kept him from sports. (p. 264)

To be sure…

  • Goodwin’s focus is history told through Great Men, all of them white. We need other diverse narratives of leadership in turbulent times. (Please share any of your recommendations by replying to this email.)
  • All of the presidents in Leadership assumed office in times of conflict, crisis, and desperation. Today we’re also dealing with a crisis due to the amplification of untruths and disagreement about basic facts.

Memorable anecdotes:

  • Lincoln would write “hot” letters to channel his anger at a colleague. But then he would put them aside and wouldn’t send them. Historians later discovered a bunch of such letters marked by Lincoln “never sent and never signed.” He advised one cabinet member seething about an affront to write such a “hot” letter and then told him to throw it out, saying, “You feel better now. That is all that is necessary.” (p. 225)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt ruled that only female reporters could attend her weekly press conferences, forcing some publishers to hire their first female reporters and thus helping give birth to a generation of women journalists. (p. 289) 

Choice quotes:

  • “‘Everyone likes a compliment,’ Lincoln observed; everyone needs praise for the work they are doing.” (p. 224)
  • “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that books were the chief building blocks of [Teddy Roosevelt’s] identity.” (p. 264)
  • “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” —Lincoln, speaking to Congress, Jan. 1863 (p. 231)
  • “The nation asks for action, and action now.” —FDR, March 1933 inauguration (p. 278)
  • “We have new and complex problems. We don’t really know what they are. Why not establish a new agency to take over the new duty rather than saddle it to an old institution?” —FDR (p. 294)
  • “What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing.” —LBJ (p. 335)

The bottom line is that Goodwin’s recounting of ambitious, visionary leadership in times of crisis makes somewhat encouraging reading in this moment. When the book was first published two years ago, Goodwin said “The difference between the times I have written about and today is that our best leaders of the past, when faced with challenges of equal if not greater intensity, were able not only to pull our country through, but leave us stronger and more unified than before.” 

Her detailed case studies of such leadership are instructive. Goodwin frames Lincoln as transformational leadership, Teddy Roosevelt in terms of crisis management, FDR as turnaround leadership, and LBJ as visionary leadership. They’re applicable for people not just in the context of government, but in organizations of all sorts.  

You can order Leadership in Turbulent Times at or Amazon. All page numbers referenced above are to the hardcover edition. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.)

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.