Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin began writing her most recent book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” five years ago—before the beginning of the norm-shattering Trump presidency and the national divisions it has laid bare and, some would argue, thrived on.

So, while the lessons in public leadership that Goodwin drew from the lives of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, may have particular relevancy now, she began looking for them because she saw a system that was already broken.

“There was a sense that the people in Washington couldn’t do anything together; that they were broken as bipartisans,” Goodwin said at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum this week. She said she saw a system that was “not working.”

Goodwin spoke on presidents past and presidential contests to come at an event titled “Lessons in Leadership: Presidential Character and the Making of a Leader,” hosted by David Gergen, professor of public service and founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL). Introducing Goodwin and Gergen, Wendy Sherman, professor of the practice of public leadership and Gergen’s successor as CPL director, remarked that between the two of them, Gergen and Goodwin had served in every presidential administration from Johnson’s to George H.W. Bush’s, with President Carter’s the sole exception.

But, as a historian and author, Goodwin has also spent much of her life embedded in the administrations of presidents further back in America’s past. (She affectionately calls the presidents “my guys” since, she reasons, she has spent so much time with them.) She spoke about the complex lives of each: the patrician Roosevelts—one affected by the debilitating illness, the other by a debilitating grief brought on by the deaths of his wife and mother—the humble Lincoln, desperately seeking knowledge in an environment that discouraged it, and the scrappy Johnson, with his early experience teaching at a segregated school to help students who he knew would find few open doors in life.

And from their unique experiences, Goodwin was able to tease out some common threads and weave them into important and relevant leadership lessons. Their early entrance into politics, their desire to leave a mark on the world, and their discovery of their calling (the sense of vocation that Goodwin, citing the philosopher William James, called “the voice within”).

She described how each was able to meet people from other walks of life, learning to become curious and empathetic, and how each one experienced tremendous adversity and was able to come back from the edge of despair, steeling themselves for the challenges they would face as leaders.

Looking towards the upcoming 2020 presidential race, Goodwin bemoaned an obsession, especially among journalists, with electability, fundraising, and a candidate’s ability to win a “slice of the pie.” She urged a broader look at character and experience. “Do they have humility, empathy, resilience? Can they communicate with a certain kind of purpose? Can they control their negative emotions?” she asked.

Goodwin also noted that the current moment is ripe for change—“we need a political revolution in this country,” she said—just like those that led to the emancipation of slaves, the great progressive reforms of the early 20th century, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. In those moments, political leaders took advantage of the work done by activists.

“When you look at the history of our country, all of the movements toward social justice have come from citizen activism,” she said.

Finally, for those disheartened by the current state of politics, Goodwin said history had another important lesson. “History gives us solace that we’ve been through these hard times before,” she said.

Photo by Gail Oskin

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