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Lessons of Presidential Leadership
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Leader to Leader, No. 9 Summer 1998

Doris Kearns Goodwin Thought Leaders Forum:
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin is the bestselling author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, and No Ordinary Time, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for History. Her most recent book is the baseball memoir Wait Till Next Year. She served as an assistant to President Johnson his last year in office and taught for 10 years at Harvard University. (6/98)
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Leader to Leader -- book cover This article is Chapter 4 in Leader to Leader. See the complete contents.
From Leader to Leader, No. 9 Summer 1998
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There are as many styles of leadership as there are leaders. That is evident simply by looking at the 42 men who have reached the highest office in the land. It is especially clear from three presidents whose legacies loom large 30 years and more after they left office: Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and the greatest president of this century, Franklin Roosevelt.

Johnson's great strength as a leader was his superb understanding of the process of government, specifically the legislative process. That was the key to the landmark legislative program of his early years in office -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, and aid to education. He had spent his life in the House and the Senate, and he respected the give-and-take of congressional politics. He took seriously and understood the needs of each representative and senator, and worked hard to build relationships with them. When Johnson was a senator, for instance, he knew that Sundays were a lonely time for the leader of the Senate, Richard Russell, a bachelor. So Johnson visited Russell every Sunday morning to read the New York Times and keep him company. Not surprisingly, Russell later helped Johnson to become majority leader of the Senate.

As president, Johnson mastered one of the great skills of leadership -- knowing when to go forward with each of his goals. He had an instinctive sense of timing about when to introduce a bill, and which ones would create momentum rather than divisiveness for the next bill. For instance, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act on the heels of the bloody march on Selma, Alabama, when police assaulted peaceful demonstrators and Congress faced overwhelming public pressure to act. On the wall of the Oval Office Johnson kept a map that showed him which bills were in which committee at every moment. He would come to his office at 5 A.M. and start calling the congressmen and senators he knew were going to have to vote on a provision of the bill that day. If they didn't answer the phone, he'd talk to the wife, husband, son, daughter, or grandchild, saying, "Now you get the Senator to go with me on this bill," and making each senator (and his family) feel that he was the key to success.

Johnson was also able to share credit with members of both parties. He understood that he had to make Congress feel that his landmark legislation was their triumph as well. He assured Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, for instance, that Dirsken's support for the Civil Rights Bill would make him a hero to millions. This approach succeeded brilliantly. By the middle of 1965, America was on course, as Johnson might have said, for the largest social reform since the New Deal. And since Roosevelt was his idol, that was Johnson's goal.

Sadly, in the midst of these great triumphs, he made a fatal decision with respect to the war in Vietnam. Initially he was reluctant to get involved in the war; his whole heart was in domestic policy. But by July 1965 it was clear that he either had to escalate our commitment or gradually withdraw. He decided, of course, to escalate, to commit hundreds of thousands of troops and millions of dollars. But it was the way he made that decision that proved his undoing. Some people within his administration had argued that he should mobilize the American public behind the war effort by going to Congress for a declaration of war, making a series of speeches explaining his position, imposing a war tax to create a sense of shared participation, and calling up the reserves.

But Johnson rejected all of these ideas. Instead, he decided to finance the war with the current level of appropriations (while putting in secret Defense Department appropriations) and keeping from Congress and the public the very pessimistic estimates about how much time and manpower it would take to win the war. His first goal was always to keep his Great Society moving forward, and he didn't trust the American people or the Congress to support him if the full scope of the war were understood.

Of course, a leader cannot break trust. It's a disastrous decision in any institution, but particularly when lives are at risk. In his speeches Johnson kept promising that there was light at the end of the tunnel -- a promise that proved fatal when he was unable to keep his word. The public was not prepared for the long and difficult war that emerged, and Johnson's credibility was destroyed. Divisions in the society deepened, the peace movement grew, and North Vietnam's successful Tet offensive provoked a challenge in the 1968 primaries from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, leading eventually to Johnson's withdrawal from the presidential race. His retirement was almost unbearable to him, knowing how he had failed at the moment his triumph had almost been achieved. In the end, his greatest enemy was not his political or military adversaries, but his own arrogance.

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Lyndon Johnson and his predecessor, John Kennedy, present a remarkable contrast in style. Kennedy's strengths and weaknesses as a leader were the mirror image of Johnson's. Whereas Johnson was brilliant in small groups, making deals with individual congressman, making Congress feel part of a team effort to create the Great Society, Kennedy was never really comfortable with the world of legislative politics. He didn't enjoy the backroom schmoozing, and didn't believe in the process of political give and take. His ambitions were always a step beyond the House and Senate, and his colleagues there felt that he wasn't really one of them. Nor did he possess the instinctive sense of timing that allowed Johnson to capitalize on dramatic moments and build on each success. By contrast, Kennedy introduced a series of bills when he first came into office (many of which Johnson eventually passed) that were stymied by the time of his death.

The art of leadership is to mobilize people to care about the tasks ahead.

Yet where Lyndon Johnson was unable to mobilize the public at large, unable to generate trust in the people, unable to sustain the dignity of the presidency and the credibility of his word, John Kennedy understood the power of language, the importance of symbolism, humor, and image to give the public a sense of connection to the Presidency. He made millions of people feel they were part of the New Frontier. That's the mystery and the art of leadership -- the ability to mobilize people to feel included and to care about the tasks ahead. Kennedy made politics exciting and fulfilling. He conveyed the most important sense that a leader can convey: that the problems of society, however large they might seem, could be solved by public action. In so doing, he gave energy to a growing number of movements of the 1960s, even some that were not particularly friendly to him: the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, the consumer movement, the environmental movement. Indeed, his strongest legacy was that he made young people feel that politics was an honorable profession and a rich adventure. Kennedy's concept of public service brought thousands of young people into the Peace Corps and VISTA, creating a desire on the part of the younger generation to play a role in improving human society.

We see cycles in American history where people want to be part of the large issues of the day. They march, they argue, they discuss the problems with friends and family. At other times, such as the past decade or so, private life takes precedence. Kennedy helped create social momentum; that is an exceptional ability even for gifted leaders, and may be his greatest legacy.

Perhaps, however, one of his best temperamental qualities, in contrast to Lyndon Johnson, was his ability to learn from mistakes. For example, after he made the disastrous mistake at the Bay of Pigs, authorizing an ill advised, ill prepared intervention in Cuba, he reshaped his foreign policy decision-making structure. Never again would he depend on a narrow group of advisers who may have had their own agendas. He learned to question others' assumptions and values, to critically examine the information and intelligence brought to him. He was not just skeptical; he was genuinely curious. He was able to reach down into the bureaucracy, calling State Department desk officers who had never been called by a president before, to get unfiltered information. This approach contributed to his success in handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which proved to be a political turning point in the 20th Century.

Kennedy also accepted responsibility for the failure at the Bay of Pigs -- and surprisingly to him, his public opinion ratings went up as a result. In fact, he said at that point, "I don't understand it. The worse I do, the more they love me." Of course, the public was responding not to his mistakes, but willingness to shoulder responsibility.

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But as compelling as Johnson's and Kennedy's leadership legacies were, no president I've studied offers a better case study in leadership than Franklin Roosevelt. Probably his greatest gift as a leader was his absolute confidence in himself and, more important, in the American people. It was a confidence shaped in part by his parents, by the possession of his talents, and by the transforming experience of triumphing over his polio. It was a confidence so deep that it provided an inner well of security through the worst days of World War II. Once, in the middle of the war, he told a friend, "When I go to sleep at night and I think of all the decisions that I've made that day, I say to myself, 'Well, old top, you've probably done as best you can.' And I roll over and go straight to sleep." Contrast that to Lyndon Johnson waking in the night, worrying about whether the bombing targets he had chosen had been right.

Roosevelt's confidence allowed him to be flexible; to try everything and meet defeat with serenity knowing he'd do better next time. He tolerated ambiguity in ways that often baffled, and sometimes angered, those around him. He was so skilled at anticipating what others wanted from him, it was said that he would seem to agree with people at meetings by nodding his head amiably at anything that was said, leaving confusion as to what he really believed. Perhaps fewer friends would have been lost by bluntness, one disillusioned aide said. However, his ambiguity didn't stop him from taking action. He never lost the essential quality of leadership, which is to observe, discuss, assess, understand -- and then to take responsibility and move forward.

Roosevelt's optimism extended to the people at large, in the mysterious ways that great leaders engage others.

Moreover, Roosevelt's supreme confidence proved contagious, for he was somehow able to transmit his strength outward -- first to his cabinet officers, who wrote that during the darkest days of the war they felt buoyed by his strength, his optimism, his belief in them. But ultimately, Roosevelt's optimism extended to the American people at large, in the mysterious ways that great leaders engage others. He did this primarily through a remarkable series of radio addresses -- the "fireside chats" -- in which he shaped, educated and molded public opinion, not merely reflected popular opinion as leaders too much do today.

I'd always imagined that Roosevelt was on the radio every week as today's presidents are, but actually he delivered just two or three fireside chats a year. He waited for a dramatic moment to go before the people. These addresses were so powerful and inspiring that afterwards he received thousands of telegrams urging him to go on the radio every day to sustain morale. But he wrote back one of his listeners with knowing insight, saying that if his speeches ever become routine they would lose their effectiveness. That is yet another of the leadership challenges that he so well understood: when to go before the people, how to seize a dramatic moment to ask for certain things, and how to avoid overexposure.

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If you've ever felt overwhelmed by the complexity of a problem, think of what Roosevelt faced in 1940. With war approaching, the United States had virtually no military capacity -- we became the 17th largest military power only after Holland surrendered to Germany and lost its spot on the list. We had just 500,000 soldiers in our army compared to 6 million in the German Army. Roosevelt understood that Germany's threat was to Western civilization; he had to mobilize an isolationist country and move from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy. His first step was to reach out to the business community with whom he had endured hostile relationships in the 1930s. But he knew that government couldn't build the tanks, the weapons, the planes, the ships -- only the business community could. He asked business leaders to run the war production agencies, and as "dollar a year men" they became heroes during the war.

He gave generous loans and tax incentives to help build the factories that would produce war matériel, forging perhaps the most extraordinary government-business partnership ever, and creating a miracle of industrial production. Between 1940 and 1942, America produced more weaponry than all of the Axis powers and other Allied powers combined. In terms of total output, some have calculated it was like building a Panama Canal every week. Roosevelt also knew the importance of making each factory feel it was an integral part of this production effort. He visited the plants and shipyards, conferred awards of excellence, and understood the power of symbolism. There was a pilot, for instance, who had been shot down in the South Pacific but whose plane somehow carried him to safety. With Roosevelt, the decorated pilot visited the Boeing plant where his plane had been built, and told tell the workers they had saved his life. Naturally they redoubled their efforts.

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Roosevelt understood that history can be a powerful leadership tool.

In contrast to Lyndon Johnson, Roosevelt never promised that victory would be quick or easy. After giving people his sober estimates, however, he said he was certain that eventually a democracy would beat out a dictatorship because a democracy releases the free energies of a free people, while the most efficient dictatorship never can. He brought his point to life by highlighting American history -- Washington at Valley Forge running out of provisions but persevering; the pioneers' struggles to settle the West, the hardships of the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution. Like most presidents before him -- and unlike most since -- Roosevelt understood that history can be a powerful leadership tool.

He also understood the need for personal renewal, and he drew sustenance from a remarkable group of people around him. Imagine what the modern media would make of the Roosevelt White House: a secretary in love with the President; a woman reporter in love with the First Lady; a beautiful Norwegian princess visiting on weekends; the prime minister of England in residence for months at a time, drinking from morning to night, and yet saving his country in the process. We have seen how destructive the airing of such subjects can be. But these relationships were essential to Roosevelt's leadership. His conversations with the people who lived with him in the White House allowed him to relax and replenish his energies to face the struggles of the day.

More than any leader I have studied, Roosevelt knew how to structure relaxation into his working days. For instance, he had a cocktail hour every night with one rule: you could not talk about politics. (The only person who violated the rule, it was said, was Eleanor, who somehow couldn't help but bring up slum clearance or civil rights during these social hours.) But most of the time he was able to relax, and he could often work several hours more at night after the cocktail hour, replenished by those conversations. In the midst of the worst days of the war, he would hold marathon poker games with his cabinet officers, where the only thing he thought about was how to win the next hand. And almost unimaginably today, in the midst of the war, Roosevelt went on several fishing trips, one of which lasted 10 days. He argued that the prevailing assumptions, the group-think, the obstacles to change made creative thinking impossible in Washington. Indeed, some of his most important initiatives, such as the Lend Lease program that sustained England in the early years of the war, were conceived during these getaways.

It is also useful to consider Roosevelt's complicated and difficult relationship with Eleanor. It was an historic partnership that points up the importance for all leaders to have a counterpoint to themselves, someone who mirrors their strengths and weaknesses, as in many ways Eleanor did for Franklin. She was always concerned with what should be done; he was concerned with what could be done. She was the idealist, he the practical force. To be sure, the partnership between Franklin and Eleanor was not without flaws on both sides. But after his death she understood that much of her vision had been realized, that the war had become a vehicle for social reform at home. The United States had been transformed from a weak, isolationist, socially stratified country to a powerful, productive, prosperous society, more just than ever in its history.

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As leaders, all three presidents knew the importance of assembling a strong inner circle, knowing the talents, skills and weaknesses of people, and matching those to the demands are of the job. Johnson, for instance, had almost a psychiatrist's capacity to understand the people he was dealing with -- especially when he served in the Senate -- and how to translate colleagues' needs into votes. Of course, presidents, more than most chief executives, often make compromises in recruiting their senior managers; Fortune 500 presidents don't need Congressional approval for their teams. Yet all effective leaders still choose a strength over a weakness.

Of course, every leader uses talent differently. Roosevelt deliberately appointed to his Cabinet people of diverse points of view who weren't afraid to challenge one another, or him. Indeed their public squabbles often deflected criticism away from himself. Starting with Kennedy, however, the White House staff began to eclipse the Cabinet as the president's central policymaking team. It's an important distinction because Cabinet officers, while appointed by the president, represent somewhat of their own constituency; they manage agencies, and that gives them a certain power vis a vis the president. White House staffers, on the other hand, are beholden only to the president and are less likely to challenge the boss.

Isolation deprives leaders of new ideas.

The mistake that Johnson made was keeping most of Kennedy's Cabinet. It included some very capable people, and Johnson thought that after Kennedy's shocking death the nation needed continuity. But that meant that he never really felt these were his people. As the war escalated and criticism mounted, he hunkered down; instead of dealing with the full Cabinet and inviting debate, he dealt with a smaller and smaller group of advisers. By 1968, the Cabinet was hardly meeting; Johnson's major decisions were made with only two or three people. That's a tendency for all leaders when things get tough, but it's precisely the wrong tendency. Johnson's isolation deprived him of new ideas and led to his undoing.

At their best, all effective leaders, share a gift for defining a vision, for moving people toward a direction for the future. For some, that movement is propelled by a crisis. By the time Roosevelt came into office, for instance, the Depression had reached such a depth that people were ready for change. But absent a crisis that helps mobilize the public, leaders must find other opportunities. For instance, when Kennedy was elected in 1960, there was no overwhelming crisis. The Cold War had become a state of grinding normalcy, but by talking about poverty, about public service, he was able to lift expectations and make people feel part of a noble cause.

It's up to the leader to know how to use words to channel people's best impulses into positive outcomes.

Great leaders have that capacity, but it's not simply charisma; it can be words. Lyndon Johnson didn't have charisma -- but when he stood before a joint session of Congress in March 1965 and spoke about history and fate coming together at Lexington and Concord and then in Selma, he told people the time had come to right a terrible wrong. That was a moment when a leader's words reached out and connected him to a powerful social movement. The Voting Rights Act passed within six weeks. It's up to the leader to know how to use words to channel people's best impulses into positive outcomes. That is another trait shared by Johnson, Kennedy, and Roosevelt. Their strengths lay in their extraordinary ability to reach out and move others; their weaknesses were simply those of any human being.

In the end, leaders and followers trying to make sense of -- and a difference in -- today's world face the same task as historians trying to understand the past. The real challenge of history is to resist the tendency, so prevalent today, to label, to stereotype, to expose, to denigrate -- and instead to bring common sense and empathy to our work so that the past can truly come alive, even if just for a few moments, in all of its beauty, sorrow, and glory.

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Ten Lessons for Leaders

Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and Franklin Roosevelt were three very different people and presidents. But their stories offer at least ten useful lessons for leaders of today's organizations.

  • Timing is (almost) everything. Knowing when to introduce an initiative, when to go before one's constituents -- and when to hold off -- is a crucial skill.

  • Anything is possible if you share the glory. Giving others a chance to claim credit is an easy, and effective, way to get results.

  • Trust, once broken, is seldom restored. It is the most fragile yet essential attribute of leadership. No leader can afford to take his word lightly.

  • Leadership is about building connections. Effective leaders make people feel they have a stake in common problems.

  • Leaders learn from their mistakes. To succeed, leaders must acknowledge and understand and improve on their shortcomings.

  • Confidence -- not just in oneself -- counts. Most leaders are self-confident, sometimes to a fault; the real gift is the ability to extend faith in oneself to others. That means actually believing in their gifts.

  • Effective partnerships require devotion to one's partners. Attention to the needs of the remote plant or institution pays off with energetic commitment.

  • Renewal comes from many sources. Leaders must know themselves and find their own sources of strength.

  • Leaders must be talent brokers. The ability to identify, recruit, and effectively manage the best and brightest people -- including people unlike oneself -- is itself a key talent.

  • Language is one's most powerful tool. Without the ability to communicate, leaders can possess all the other attributes and still fail to have an impact.
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