Leadership: In Turbulent Times (2018), by Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses the leadership secrets of four presidents who played a pivotal role in shaping the transformation of the United States of America.

The author takes a look into the leadership qualities of four influential and transformational presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, and we learn what makes a great leader.

1. Backgrounds Hardly Matter In The Path To Greatness

Great leadership doesn’t always stem from one’s background or from the circumstances of a person. The difference between the backgrounds and upbringing of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are proof.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Illinois to an uneducated father, who took him out of school at the age of nine to help him in his work. However, Lincoln’s love for education made him borrow books from other people. As a young adult, it took him years of relationship building with townspeople in New Salem to earn a reputation good enough to earn a seat in the state assembly of Illinois.

In contrast, Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York, a grandson to the fifth richest individual, with a trust fund bequeathed to him. His father was a philanthropist and gave his son access to the large family library at a young age. Theodore Roosevelt’s family name itself was enough to merit his entry into politics.

With such stark differences in backgrounds, it is clear that the background and circumstances are not of much importance in the path to greatness. 

2. Not All Leaders Have The Same Personal Traits

Just as great leaders come from varied backgrounds, they do not have the same personality traits.

Where Franklin Roosevelt had a loving, stable, and nurturing environment that resulted in a warm and optimistic demeanour, Lincoln, due to his tough upbringing, used to suffer from depression and melancholy. Even in terms of physical attributes, Lincoln was tall, healthy, strong, and athletic due to his laborious background. On the other hand, Theodore Roosevelt had fragile health and suffered from asthma.

When we consider another aspect of personality, memory, we find that where Theodore Roosevelt had a photographic memory, Lincoln had to practice and memorize to be able to retain large amounts of information.

The personalities of these four presidents were as different as chalk and cheese, even when it came to how they spent their free time. Out of the four, only Lyndon Johnson was a workaholic. Where Lincoln loved drama and poetry, Theodore Roosevelt loved novels and birds and Franklin Roosevelt played poker and sailed.

3. They All Had Strengths And Associated Weaknesses

It is easy to perceive great leaders as larger-than-life personas. However, in reality, while they did have remarkable strength and mettle as transformational presidents, their very strengths were also double-edged as weaknesses. Even these strengths and weaknesses are varied and do not point to any commonality among them. 

Lincoln learned the ropes of politics through patiently observing, till he was confident to enter the fray. Conversely, Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to the presidency was aggressive and he had uncontained energy. While it proved to be a great asset, it also can be seen as a weakness, considering his interrogation and violation of rules would irritate his colleagues sometimes.

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt would willingly bend, bypass, and even at times, break rules if the end justified the means. This trait worked as a strength as well as a weakness.

4. Ambition Is The Common Factor

Once again, the backgrounds and upbringing of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln show that despite the contradictions, they had one factor that was common – ambition.

Looking back at Lincoln’s early years, one would never guess that he would become a successful politician one day, let alone be the greatest presidents of history. His ambition is shown in his love and thirst for education, his independence in learning to read and write himself, his penchant for studying law by working day and night.

At the same time, Theodore Roosevelt, one might say, had it all served on a platter. However, when his health prevented him from outdoor games, he cultivated voracity for reading and knowledge, which sparked his ambition.

5. They All Had A Greater Purpose In Life

All the presidents show that their climb towards great leadership can be attributed to the fact that they were able to blend their strengths, ambitions, and traits and align them to a greater purpose in life.

Johnson can perhaps be cited as a classic example of having that greater purpose. His promotion of Civil Rights led to a number of reforms that led to programs such as eliminating poverty, racial injustice, and discriminatory voting laws. His greater purpose in life also guided him to founding Medicare for the elderly and passing of the Voting Rights Act. 

6. The Uncertain Path To Leadership

The path to great leadership has one thing for certain – uncertainty. While there are stories of strength, victories, and great thoughts and ideas being put into action, the stories of hardships, setbacks, and failures are also there.

All four transformational presidents have had their fateful trysts with uncertainty at the brink of their political careers. While Franklin Roosevelt developed a polio-like condition at the age of 39, Lincoln lost in his first try at the Illinois state assembly. During his second run, his ambitious plans for a complete overhaul of state infrastructure at risk of his own reputation was sent crashing down by a multi-year recession. The following days brought him severe depression, where his friends hid all his razors fearing he would commit suicide.

Theodore Roosevelt suffered an attack of acute depression after his mother and wife passed away on the same day. Lyndon Johnson too suffered from depression, however, a heart attack in the middle of a presidential run, which put a halt to his political ambitions was his tryst with uncertainty.

7. Retreat, Reflect, and Rebuild In The Face Of Crisis

It was these very difficult uncertain setbacks in the lives of the transformational four that propelled them towards greatness. While Lincoln returned to law, Theodore Roosevelt took time off at his Western ranch and dedicated his time to strengthening his physical self and transforming his timid demeanor into one of courage. 

Johnson, after his heart attack, took time off to recuperate and spend time with family. He used his break to reevaluate his political goals by reconnecting with his political values. Franklin Roosevelt on the other hand took seven years to regain his strength. He built a formidable team of close confidants who kept his reputation alive in politics.

8. Lessons In Crisis Management From Personal Crises

The path to great leadership is strewn with crises, and the transformational four, each saw their fair share of personal crises. These personal crises helped them emerge stronger and leverage the learnings from their personal crises in their pursuit of the presidency. Yet, each of them also faced national crises in the White House.

Abraham Lincoln had to deal with the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt with the Coal Strike of 1902, Franklin Roosevelt faced the Great Depression, and Lyndon Johnson faced the assassination of President Kennedy.

Case in point, President Franklin Roosevelt’s debilitating illness, and the debilitating national economic crisis helped him identify parallels and come up with strategies that eventually led to the formation of about 16 new innovative governmental agencies that helped the economy back on its feet.

9. Great Leaders Build Diverse Teams

It is Franklin Roosevelt’s illness that shows us the importance of a great team. Without his confidante surrogates, his political career would have died its death. Yet it helped him bounce back to become the governor of New York and eventually President.

Similarly, Lincoln knew and thus assembled a supportive team to take on the Confederacy. Additionally, his cabinet included his rivals Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and William Seward along with others who reflected diverse views. This diversity provided a range of opinions that Lincoln would view, review, and weigh before acting upon. 

10. There Is No Mantra To Great Leadership

The path towards great leadership of the transformational four shows us that great leadership isn’t a one-click mantra. It doesn’t rely on similar background and upbringing and neither can it be attributed to a common personality trait. Rather, it is a fusion of ambition, strengths, failure, accomplishment, personal crises, and most importantly a great team that propels them towards imbibing and exhibiting the great values of leadership that took the United States of America to greatness and power.