Six leadership lessons from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Grassroots keynote

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Credit: J Carrier

A lauded presidential historian and author, Goodwin closed out Grassroots 2019 with a keynote on how to be a strong leader.

Drawing on the five decades of research Doris Kearns Goodwin has conducted to inform her bestselling presidential biographies, she closed out AIA’s 2019 Grassroots leadership conference with a wide-ranging keynote address on the qualities she sees as essential for effective leadership.

Goodwin illuminated her larger points with examples from the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—the subjects of her newest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times.

These four presidents are in some ways very different. They originated in far-flung areas of the country, coming from both humble and privileged backgrounds. Lincoln showed political promise from a very early age, while FDR was a relative latecomer to the political arena. However, all led the country during difficult periods of change and upheaval.

While Goodwin observed that there’s “no real master recipe for leadership”, she has discovered what she calls “a family resemblance of leadership traits.” Aside from the key attributes of humility, empathy, resilience, and the ability to control negative impulses, here are a few of the common threads she’s identified.

Leaders can be made.

According to Goodwin, all four presidents had different amounts of innate leadership potential. But, she says, “Far more important than their inborn qualities was the work ethos that they developed.” All four worked in a diligent and focused manner on the problems of their respective eras.

The emphasis on hard work is one that is accessible to everyone, even beyond the presidential sphere. “The real success that most people have is when people have ordinary talents that they develop to an extraordinary degree through hard, sustained work,” she says.  

Communicate through stories, not just facts and figures.

People tend to remember stories better than data, so communicating through anecdotes can be helpful in building common ground. Lincoln’s speeches, in particular, always told a story, while Theodore Roosevelt excelled at short, punchy statements. Goodwin says that according to Lincoln, people remember stories because they have a beginning, middle, and end—and the sequence sticks with them.

It’s important to listen to a variety of opinions.

Goodwin notes the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are willing to disagree without fear of consequence. Lincoln included his political rivals Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward in his cabinet because he valued the diversity of their opinions and advice—a lesson that is valuable for leaders at every level.

Resilience is the ability to sustain ambition through setbacks and loss.

Leadership studies, Goodwin says, suggest that resilience—the ability to sustain ambition through loss and adversity—is at the heart of leadership growth. All four of the presidents in Goodwin’s book suffered devastating losses and were subsequently able to grow through their experiences. Being able to reframe setbacks as growth opportunities is an essential and invaluable skill.  

It’s important to make time to relax and reflect.  

The ability to find time to think is crucial, Goodwin says, and an “underappreciated” attribute. It’s important to take time to relax, to replenish one’s energy, and to find balance—which is harder than ever in a world where we carry our instruments of communication with us at all times. “We can find the time to think and relax if we surely make room to do so,” she says.

Lincoln went to the theater more than 100 times during the Civil War. When the lights went down and a Shakespeare play came on, “for a few precious moments, he could forget the war that was raging.”

Real change happens when citizens and people in power form a partnership.

“When Lincoln was a called a liberator, he said, ‘Don’t call me a liberator. It was the anti-slavery people that did it all,’” she says. “When the Revolution was won, it was won, people said, in the hearts and minds of the people before the first battle was even fought.”

Goodwin’s greater point is that power has to have a purpose—most of the large-scale change in this country has taken place when citizens and leaders work toward a common goal. Leaders need to gain popular support and work in tandem with those they are leading, or they will have difficulty accomplishing their goals.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

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