CREATIVE CONVERSATION I DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN
clerkship or a postmastership, he got a feeling about where they were coming from. That
openness can be distracting. But if [presidents] can figure it out, then other people can.
What behaviors should business leaders be careful not to emulate? If you look at
the importance of dealing with [your] team in an emotionally intelligent way, Johnson
would seem to [do] the opposite. The people who worked for him [when he was the
Texas state director of] the National Youth Administration [in 1935] said that he was
really hard. If you had a cluttered desk, he thought it was a sign of disorganization. If
you had a clean desk, it signified idleness. Somebody said if he caught you reading a
letter from your mother or taking a crap, he’d say, “Son, can’t you try a little harder to do
that on your own time?”
Nonetheless, his NYA program was considered the best in the country. How could
that behavior lead to such a magnificent performance [by his team]? I think the answer
is that he was always there before they arrived and stayed after they left. He was work-
ing harder than everyone. More importantly, they had a sense of pride. They knew they
were joined together in an incredible new organization that promised to change the lives
of thousands of people. And they knew his leadership was helping make that happen.
First Ladies are an interesting case of leadership without authority. What can we
learn from Eleanor Roosevelt? She transformed what had been a ceremonial role into
a real position. On his first day, Roosevelt announced that he was going to have a press
conference. [Eleanor] held her own press conference that same day, but she made a rule
that only female reporters could come. So all over the country, publishers had to hire their
first female reporter. An entire generation of female journalists got their start because of
her. She also traveled 200 days a year, checking on [Franklin’s] programs. She would talk
to people and bring back anecdotes and stories. She was the first investigative-reporter
First Lady. She offered an outside evaluation on the administration.
What role does adversity play in creating a leader? Roosevelt’s polio meant that he
emerged much more warmhearted, with humility and more focus. What he would say is,
If you’ve spent years trying to crawl up the stairs one by one, if you’ve celebrated when you
could finally move one of your frozen toes, then you’ve got perspective on later problems.
When Sheryl Sandberg and I were writing Option B, we grappled with this idea of
post-traumatic growth. After hardship, many people gain ne w perspective. Do you
have any insight on how that’s achieved? Teddy Roosevelt lost his wife and his mother
on the same day [when he was 25]. He went to the Badlands to escape his depression by
riding his horse 15 hours a day. He had an interesting reaction to the adversity. Before,
he thought of his life as moving from one rung to another, up to the top, and he became
a big star in the [New York] state legislature. But after seeing how fate had [gotten] in the
way, he realized, I’m just going to take whatever job comes my way, where I think I can do
good. When he came back from the Badlands, he became head of the [U. S.] Civil Service
Commission and then [New York City] police commissioner. Then he joined the army,
and that’s when he fully recognized his leadership qualities. Eventually, he became [Ne w
York] governor and vice president. It was a winding path to leadership, and it made him
better because he had all these different horizontal experiences rather than a vertical one.
What would Lincoln say in a 2020 campaign speech, if he were running? What
really interests me is thinking about which of these [presidents] would give a speech
that would be relevant today. It would probably be Teddy Roosevelt. Think about where
we were at the turn of the 20th century: The industrial revolution had shaken up the
economy, immigrants were pouring in, cities were replacing towns. A gap was developing between the rich and the poor, and the social landscape was changing because of all
these new inventions: the automobile, the telegraph, and the telephone. You had populist
movements that called for restrictions on immigration, and the establishment worried
about [giving] power to ordinary people. Teddy was able to channel those emotions into
positive, moderate reforms. Even his slogan would work today: “A square deal for the
rich and the poor.” He was a fighter, but he understood that democracy would founder
if people began to see each other as the other. He’d also be great at Twitter, with all his
phrases: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He’d be perfect at that.
What leadership qualities are
underrated? These [presidents] had
incredible challenges in front of
them, and they all were able to find
time to replenish their energy and
creativity. When you look at the statistics on people today, it’s astonishing: Half of Americans aren’t using
their vacation time; people fail to
disconnect even when they are on
vacation. And here you have Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the
Civil War, going to the theater 100
times. When he was in the theater,
he could forget for a few precious
hours about the war. FDR had a
cocktail party every night where the
rule was, you can’t talk about the war.
Teddy Roosevelt spent two hours
every afternoon exercising. It could
be a game of tennis or a wrestling
match with his cabinet members.
Does that mean we shouldn’t
criticize presidents or CEOs for
golfing? We owe it to them to let
them find some sort of balance between the work that, hopefully, they
love and the need to get away from
it to think, relax, and replenish.
There’s evidence that companies
perform worse when their CEOs
have better golf handicaps. If
you’re escaping because you don’t
feel engaged, that’s a different thing.
Is there a presidential trait that
we overemphasize? In some ways,
academic intelligence. [Franklin
Roosevelt] was self-assured, optimistic, buoyant, but he was a
mediocre student. He did have an
extraordinary, unique intelligence.
He had a lifelong curiosity. He
would bring in experts from the
academic world and cross-examine
them. That’s a kind of problem-solving intelligence.
You wrote in Team of Rivals that
Lincoln held daily office hours
with ordinary citizens. Should
business leaders hold office
hours? In Lincoln’s days, there was
no gate on the White House. You
could just line up outside his office.
It was terribly distracting, but [Lin-coln] said, by listening to the stories
of the people who came in wanting a
Doris Kearns Goodwin
PRESIDEN TIAL FIRS T
Goodwin to help
research and write
his 1971 memoir,
The Vantage Point.
She later drew from
those experiences to
write her first book,
the 1976 biography-memoir, Lyndon
Johnson and the
A baseball fan,
Kearns Goodwin became the first female journalist to
enter the Red Sox
locker room, in 1979.
She also served as a
consultant for Ken
Burns’s PBS documentary Baseball.
POP;CULTURE CACHE T
had a cameo in TV’s
narrating a faux
also lent her voice
to an episode of the
Simpsons, as Lisa’s
teacher. Her biography Team of Rivals
became part of the
basis for 2012’s