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Leadership in Turbulent Times

By Layne Smith

Of Abraham Lincoln

He welcomed arguments within the cabinet, but would be “greatly pained,” he warned them, if he found his colleagues attacking each other in public.

What can be learned from Lincoln’s success in keeping this disparate team together? (p.222)

Of Theodore Roosevelt

Throughout his political career, Roosevelt’s conception of leadership had been built upon a narrative of the embattled hero (armed with courage, spunk, honor, and truth) who sets out into the world to prove himself… Under the banner of “the Square Deal,” he would lead his country in a different kind of war, a progressive battle designed to restore fairness to America’s economic and social life.  (p.245)

Of Franklin D. Roosevelt –

With regard to the financial collapse and the ensuing Great Depression, Roosevelt knew at once that three lines of attack were necessary. First, the feelings of helplessness, impotence, dread, and accelerating panic had to be reversed before any legitimate recovery could commence; then, without delay, the financial collapse had to be countered; and finally, over time, the economic and social structure had to be reformed.

The steps Roosevelt took during the next hundred days to stem the immediate banking crisis set in motion a turnaround that would forever alter the relationship between the government and the people. (p.276)

Of Lyndon Johnson –

After arriving back in Washington following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson …seemed magically reawakened as he revealed the rudimentary sketch of what would become the Great Society. This might seem an apocryphal tale had not three aides been there until 3 a.m. to witness his fierce resolve not simply to dislodge Kennedy’s stalled agenda but to realize a society built on racial and economic justice far beyond the dreams of the New Deal and the Great Frontier.

…How was Johnson to actualize this vision? (p.309)

(The quotes above come from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.)

All four of these Presidents entered office during “turbulent” times, as we learn from the title. Goodwin outlines Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt’s response to The Great Coal Strike of 1902, FDR’s handling of the banking collapse and the Great Depression, and Johnson’s success in passing Kennedy’s agenda plus Medicare, Voting Rights, etc.

All were flawed persons with blind spots, like all the rest of us. However, they were strong leaders who possessed the skills, gifts, and commitments to lead our nation through challenging days. All four loved this country and wanted what they believed was best for her and worked diligently to see their dreams and visions for our nation come to fruition.

The book consists of three sections. In Part One, we are introduced to the four men as they enter public life.  However, Part Two articulates how they experienced “dramatic reversals that shattered the private and public lives of all four…” (p.xv). The ways that each responded to their personal crisis helped shape and solidify their leadership qualities and prepared them for the challenges of the Presidency. Part Three brings them to the White House where they encounter their particular challenges. 

Goodwin does an excellent job of parsing out the leadership qualities that were called forth to address these challenge(s). For instance, in the chapter addressing FDR’s presidential leadership, she lists sixteen different leadership qualities that he embodied to address the banking collapse and Great Depression.

This book can provide insight and encouragement to those of us in ministry leadership positions, particularly as we face the turbulent times that seem to never end.  

There’s the much-heralded decline in church/worship attendance and other markers, exacerbated by the pandemic. How can we provide thoughtful, spiritually wise leadership when many who disappeared during the pandemic aren’t going to return? How/Should our mission adapt to this new, emerging reality? What leadership qualities are needed? The book can not only help the reader discover his/her leadership gifts, but also figure out how to use those gifts.

Layne Smith is PLG Regional Director for North Carolina, Virginia, and the Mid-Atlantic.

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