On Monday, master historian, biographer and political commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin humored and humbled her crowd of history enthusiasts as one of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy's lecturers. You might’ve missed it because every seat was taken.
Goodwin is widely known because Steven Spielberg adapted her book Team of Rivals into the Oscar-winning film Lincoln. Goodwin has also written extensive and detailed accounts of America’s presidents who faced adversity.
Her lecture on Monday delved into this topic of leadership, the characteristics that have most prominently guided former U.S. presidents and what this means for current leadership in the U.S. Goodwin used Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt as models for ideal leaders — leaders who experienced much of the same frustrations as Trump but whose actions and communication styles took different forms.
“Even though problems change over time," Goodwin says, "there are indeed traits that are held inalterable by our most successful leaders."
These are some of the characteristics Goodwin highlighted in her speech at Jesse Auditorium.
Goodwin pointed out that personal adversity helps leaders when they face national obstacles in their presidency.
As a child, Lincoln aspired to have a legacy, but his rural surroundings limited his schooling to 12 months. He struggled with the death of his mother, sister and first love, which manifested in depression that he lived with his whole life, Goodwin says; battling his melancholy, though, gave him strength. Theodore Roosevelt also dealt with the death of loved ones but overcame the emotional toll by buying a ranch and immersing himself in constant physical activity.
“All leaders must develop resilience," Goodwin says. "They must, as these three presidents did, conquer themselves. This is the first prerequisite to becoming a leader.”
Goodwin says that leaders must have enough confidence to surround themselves with rivals who will question assumptions and challenge ideas.
Lincoln filled his presidential cabinet with men who disagreed with him and thought they themselves would be better presidents. Goodwin says that Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t have a team of rivals in his cabinet, but he did have his wife, Eleanor, who challenged him throughout his presidency.
The best illustration Goodwin gave of this point was with a proverb that Lyndon B. Johnson shared with her: "It’s better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than to have your enemies outside the tent pissing in."
All these presidents had the ability to communicate with the public. This ability, Goodwin said, maintained order and trust between the people and their leader.
Theodore Roosevelt's speaking style fit with the quick-reading press of his time. He had policies that had easy names, such as the Square Deal or his big stick policy. Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered the radio and spoke directly to Americans in their living room. Today, that communication takes the form of social media.
"A leadership ability that I think is not fully enough appreciated," Goodwin says, "is the ability to replenish energies, to relax, to shake off anxieties, to relax."
Lincoln visited the theater more than one hundred times. Goodwin says that Lincoln thought "laughter was the best tonic for him. Better than a drop of whisky." Theodore Roosevelt played a game where everyone had to move across the White House lawn point-to-point. If they came to a rock, they had to scale it. If they came to a river, they had to swim it.