Doris Kearns Goodwin

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Leadership in a crisis involves skills admired in the abstract, but shunned in practice when feathers are flying. In our current moment, crisis leadership too often are AWOL.

In Leadership for Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin traces the evolution of four Presidents from their formative period to the crucible of crisis that defined their legacy. In her narratives about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin points out the traits that each President employed as he led the nation out of crisis.

The traits she identified from the four presidents are case studies for any leader charged with managing a crisis – careful listening, empathy, thoughtfulness, patience, preparation, dramatic action, humility and personal responsibility. 

Careful Listening: Lincoln surrounded himself with a “team of rivals.” Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt consumed huge volumes of information, but they listened most carefully to human stories. Johnson chose to retain John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet as a sign of respect and ensure he understood the priorities of his predecessor. Listening for all four men was how they learned, especially in a time of crisis when time was the enemy.

Empathy: All four Presidents assumed the role as the representative of Americans at large, not special interests or regional preferences. In their own ways, each President tried to put themselves into the shoes of the soldier, the overworked and underpaid coal miner, the dispossessed farmer and the downtrodden minority. They thirsted for real-life stories that revealed real-life circumstances. From those stories, they developed an empathy that informed and humanized their decision-making.

Thoughtfulness: Each President found a way in the midst of crisis to carve out a space to think. They understood the crisis they faced had both transactional and transformational dimensions. They gave thought to how to address the immediate aspects of crisis while identifying the underlying cause and possible remedies.

Patience: When the Presidents decided on a course of action, they didn’t immediately spring into action. In some cases, they waited for the right moment for public opinion to congeal. In other cases, they took their time to consider options, reactions and precedents. They exercise what you might call creative patience.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Preparation: When a final decision was made, support staff was mobilized to put the necessary steps in place. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps and demanded that 125,000 unemployed and unmarried young men would be recruited, trained and transported to untended American timberlands within months. Few thought it was possible, but it happened because of expert preparation and coordination.

Dramatic Action: In a crisis, actions matter more than words. Sometimes the actions are bold and risky. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt intervened in a major coal strike. FDR called a special session of Congress to establish new banking regulations. Johnson pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Each dramatic action solidified the perception that these four men were leaders. They were able to accomplish what most people thought impossible – 200,000 new recruits, an arbitrated end to a destabilizing coal strike, federal insurance for bank deposits and the first civil rights legislation of any consequence since the end of the Civil War.

The last two qualities Goodwin identified may be the most important.

Humility: By almost any standard, the Roosevelts and Johnson were not humble. Lincoln came closest to humble, but even he seethed with ambition. In the face of crisis, however, each in their own way displayed humility in service of their objective. Lincoln abided the advice of political opponents. Teddy Roosevelt endured the insufferable attitude of coal company owners. Johnson let GOP Senate Leader Everett Dirksen play the lead role in passage of the Civil Rights Act. These four presidents put their egos in their pockets, at least for a while, to achieve a greater good than could have achieved on their own.

Personal Responsibility. All four Presidents assumed full responsibility for their actions – and the potential for failure. Lincoln’s confidantes warned the emancipation proclamation could redouble the resolve of the Confederacy and led to mass defections from the Union army. Teddy Roosevelt knew his intervention in a strike was outside his constitutional authority. In his fireside chats, FDR admitted some of the policies and programs he initiated were experimental and may not work as intended. Good to his word, Roosevelt modified or ended programs that didn’t work. Johnson was told civil rights legislation would never make it out of a Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers. He told Martin Luther King, Jr. that he could make it happen.

Goodwin’s book focuses on presidential crisis management. However, the principles of effective crisis management don’t change because of different job titles. Any crisis is a fundamental challenge to a reputation, a brand or an identity.

The most significant change in managing a crisis since the eras of Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Johnson has been the advent of the internet, digital media and smartphones. Time is an even greater enemy to a smart response to a crisis.

The only known antidote is more thoughtful advance preparation that includes identifying potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and an internal crisis team leader. Preparation also should include updated contact lists, a trained media spokesperson and a ghost website with information and imagery that can be shared immediately.

What Goodwin’s treatise on leadership teaches is the imperative of CEO involvement in crisis management. Only the CEO can provide the moral authority as well as the administrative approval for bold crisis responses. Only the CEO can speak for an entire organization, including its consumers, stakeholders and employees affected by the crisis and the response. Only the CEO can see beyond the crisis to the future. Only the CEO can invoke the mission and purpose of an organization as guidance for every person involved in a crisis response.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 


Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.