12 Leadership Lessons from Pulitzer Prize-winner Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin—Massachusetts Conference for Women keynoter, presidential historian, and Pulitzer prize winning author

How do you lead in turbulent times like these?

If you’re presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, you look to people who led brilliantly in times past. In particular, you look to the people she refers to as “my guys:” Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ.

“Just as we learn from the triumphs and sorry of our parents and grandparents, so I believe we can learn from the leadership of our presidents who led in times of crisis,” she said during the 2020 Massachusetts Conference for Women.

Abraham Lincoln took office when the country was literally split apart and an estimated 600,000 Americans would soon die in a Civil War. The lessons Kearns Goodwin draws from his leadership:

  1. It is critical to create a diverse leadership team that can bring different points of view, life experiences and strengths—and who feel free to argue and question assumptions.
  2. Be accessible. Reach out beyond the bubble of your inner circle.
  3. Manage your emotions—especially in difficult times.

Teddy Roosevelt became president when the nation faced economic and social conflict much like we face today—with significant income inequality, distrust between Americans, and a sense of democracy being on trial. If he were advising us today, Kearns Goodwin said, he would say:

  1. Develop an overarching message that cuts through the divide. Call for fundamental fairness, a square deal for all, the right of all to rise to the level of their talent and discipline. Forge a middle path between extremes.
  2. To capture attention, talk in stories instead of facts and figures.
  3. Bring your message directly to people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited a country in the midst of the Great Depression at a time when there was no safety net. What would he tell us? Kearns Goodwin said:

  1. In times of crisis, you must strike the right balance between realism and optimism, addressing brutal realities while still expressing hope for the future.
  2. Be sure you have someone close by who can speak truth to power. (In FDR’s case, he had, of course, his wife Eleanor.)
  3. Make time to think, relax and replenish energy—something Kearns Goodwin refers to as one of the most unappreciated qualities in great leaders.

Lyndon B. Johnson assumed leadership during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Kearns Goodwin said he would council:

  1. Make your priorities clear.
  2. Recognize the value of social relationships (or, in the case of the President, social invitations to the White House.)
  3. Never underestimate the power of individual persuasion.

But in the end, she said, transforming change does not come from the top down but from the ground up—from aroused citizens joining together to bring our country to live up to its ideals. And that is as true today as it was in their time.

“What I see today are encouraging signs,” she said. “Think of the massive numbers that came out to vote in November, despite the pandemic and the obstacles that were put in their way. And most encouraging is that more women voted, and more young women, than ever before in history.”

We’ve come a long way but there is much more to do. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

“We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

Check out more highlights from the 2020 Virtual Massachusetts Conference for Women!