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Leadership lessons for today drawn from history

Leadership college hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to share successful leadership traits of past presidents.

Janel Shoun-Smith | 615.966.7078  | 

Doris Kearns Goodwin with moderator in the Shinn Center

The best-selling author Doris Kerns Goodwin lectured at Lipscomb in 2021, for the second time in the history of the College of Leadership & Public Service.

“Leadership in Turbulent Times,” a particularly apt sentiment for today’s world, was the theme for the College of Leadership & Public Service’s annual Don R. Elliott Distinguished Presidential Lectures this past fall. The 2021 speaker was Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose latest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, served as the topic of discussion for both Lipscomb’s undergraduate and graduate students and community members.

Goodwin is the author of seven critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling books, including The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, and is the author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which was adapted into an award-winning, five-part miniseries.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times draws upon her five decades of acclaimed studies in presidential history, specifically on Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson, to explore the early development, growth, and exercise of leadership. All four of these presidents “led during really difficult times,” Goodwin told the crowd at the evening community Elliott Lecture event.

“When I chose that title a decade ago, I wasn't thinking about the turbulent times we'd be living in now,” she said. “But I believe those stories have a special meaning for us today as we face our own really difficult time. When people ask me whether our time is the worst of times, the reassuring answer that history provides is no. These are not the worst of times. History provides perspective for us.”

Historic difficult times Goodwin referred to include the Civil War, noting that seven states had already seceded by the time Lincoln was elected; Teddy Roosevelt shepherded the nation to unity in the midst of the industrial revolution, corporate monopolies and the rise of socialism; FDR came into the presidency in the midst of the Great Depression; and Johnson came into office after the assassination of JFK, with global tensions rising and with a broken Congress, she said.

“All of JFK’s bills were stuck in Congress. It was a broken Congress, which gives us echoes of today. So each one of these situations called for leadership,” she said.

“I've often been asked is there a master key to leadership. I didn't really uncover one key, but I did uncover what I would call a family resemblance of leadership traits. These four presidents all share patterns of behavior that I think are relevant to leaders in all fields.”

Goodwin posing with leadership college staff

Attendees of the Don R. Elliott lecture, including college staff (seen here), were able to get their photos taken with Goodwin.

For the student forum held earlier in the day, Goodwin reflected on four of these traits -- humility, empathy, resilience, self-awareness and self-reflection.

“Empathy is one of the most important,” she told the students, describing Teddy’s Roosevelt’s journey from a young man from a wealthy family seeking adventure through politics to become a leader with a keen understanding of other people’s way of life. He developed that understanding through personally touring tenement housing and serving as Police Commissioner of New York City, she said.

“He said when he first went into public life he wasn't going in to make other people's lives better. He just wanted the adventure that it would bring to him.... But then after seeing these other ways of life and feeling it, he really wanted to do something.

“Empathy, especially in today's world, not even just in politics, is critical. When you're with people who not only disagree with you, but who lead different ways of life or have different understandings of things, if you can listen and understand and somehow put yourself in their shoes you will gain empathy. I think for a leader, it's an absolutely central quality.”

Reflecting on a prescient quote by Teddy Roosevelt stating that democracy would fail if people in different regions or of different races and backgrounds began to see each other as ‘the other’ rather than as common American citizens, Goodwin reviewed several ways the current era is similar to the Roosevelt years.

“Teddy Roosevelt understood that especially people in the east or the west, or the north or the south, or the country or the city, were feeling suspicious of one another,” she said. “So…he coined the phrase that he wanted a ‘square deal’ for the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the wage worker. He had a sort of progressive centrist philosophy. And he went on a train six weeks every spring and six weeks every fall with the same message in all parts of the country. He was able to mobilize the majority again for rational reforms against the problems of the industrial era… And he was able to create that fellow feeling among Americans.”

Dean Steve Joiner at the event

Steve Joiner, Dean of the College of Leadership & Public Service, spoke at the Elliott lecture featuring Goodwin.

For the students in particular, Goodwin described how Johnson proactively sought out high-quality mentors and how all four of the presidents she wrote about found their vocation through their passion while in their 20s.

“That’s what I would hope for you too, that you find something that is not just a job,” she said, “but is something that you really feel answers some deep passion inside. And then, that becomes your vocation.”

And her final advice to Lipscomb students was to remember that history can provide solace.

“The people living during difficult times in the past, just like you, had anxiety. They didn’t know how it was going to end. This current difficult time is a time for self-reflection and for understanding where you want the country to go. It is up to all of us to write the chapters to come.”

About the Don R. Elliott Distinguished Presidential Lectures

The Don R. Elliott Distinguished Presidential Lecture Series is designed to expose the Lipscomb University campus and the surrounding community to persons of influence in one or more issues of contemporary debate or discussion, with a preference for issues related to economics or political science.

An endowment established by the Don R. Elliott Foundation provides primary funding. The lecture series is named in memory of Don R. Elliott, a native of Kerr, Arkansas, who was a Professor of Economics and Political Science at Little Rock University, Randolph-Macon College and Vanderbilt University. He founded Don Elliott and Associates, a fundraising consulting firm that directed campaigns for Lipscomb University and a host of other universities, colleges and private schools.