I recently re-read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Leadership in Turbulent Times. She profiled four Presidents who successfully led America through a crisis: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (Civil Rights).
Lincoln chose his rivals for his cabinet because he felt that the country needed its strongest leaders during this crisis. When formulating the Emancipation Proclamation, he spoke with politicians and experts from all sides of the political debate. He spent time with soldiers, learning their thoughts on a war that impacted them the most. While the public wasn’t yet ready for emancipation, he believed that he could convince them. He listened to all positions and opinions for when and how to deliver his message. His thoughtful analysis worked, by the time he delivered the Proclamation, it was generally accepted despite its radical position.
For Theodore Roosevelt, it was the coal strike of 1902. The miners struck in the spring of 1902 and the owners were content to allow the strike to continue. As fall approached with no movement, Roosevelt recognized that many Americans, now dependent almost exclusively on coal for heat, would freeze to death. He knew that he had to find a solution. He commissioned an expert to study the issue and worked with all parties to reach a solution in time for winter.
For Franklin Roosevelt, it was the first 100 days of his presidency. After he was elected, he immediately closed the banks to prevent their collapse. He worked with experts from all sides, convened an emergency session of Congress and passed legislation to preserve the banks. Despite his opposition, he allowed Congress to add an amendment to create the FDIC. (He later acknowledged that this amendment was one of the best parts of the legislation.) Then he convened his first “fireside chat” where he explained to the American public in simple terms what had happened, what would happen and what he needed from them. The first day the banks reopened, there were lines of people, not to withdraw, but to deposit their money.
For Lyndon, it was passage of the Civil Rights bill and crucial provisions of the Great Society (e.g., Medicare). After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson recognized that the country needed to address civil rights. He manipulated, bullied and cajoled Congress to pass the first significant civil rights legislation.
These were quite different leaders. Lincoln was reflective. Teddy Roosevelt was a man of action. Franklin Roosevelt was charismatic, and Johnson was a master of working with Congress. While they approached the issue from their own strengths, they all used the following blueprint:
Become an Expert. They solicited experts and listened to every viewpoint, including the American people. (Lincoln met with soldiers, Teddy met with the miners, Franklin used Eleanor as his “eyes and ears.” Lyndon had firsthand experience.) By the time they acted, each had a thorough understanding of the crisis from all perspectives.
Accept Moral Responsibility. These leaders felt they had a moral imperative to solve the crisis. Unconcerned with popularity or approval, they recognized that they had to lead America through its crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than the Emancipation Proclamation.
Empathize. Each leader empathized with the American people; especially the poor and the dispossessed. Johnson never forgot the devastating poverty that he confronted when he was a school principal in a poor, immigrant district in Texas.
Treat Adversaries with Respect. Teddy Roosevelt had to deal with coal owners who were arrogant, dismissive, and disrespectful to everyone, including the President of the United States. Time and again, they refused to negotiate and remained unconcerned about the fate of Americans as winter approached. Nevertheless, Roosevelt refused to give up and kept trying to find a way to work with them, despite their refusal to allow the union to come to the bargaining table.
Use a Strong Team. Lincoln utilized his adversaries, Lyndon cultivated Congressional leaders. Lincoln was not afraid of strong leaders (who often disagreed with them) to help implement the solution. Franklin Roosevelt cultivated dedicated experts, who sometimes disagreed, but worked tirelessly to implement novel solutions.
Communicate Effectively. No one did this better than Franklin Roosevelt, who was able to lead and educate the nation with his fireside chats. He made the issues and his initiatives understandable without talking down to his audience.
Recognize Mistakes and Pivot Quickly. Teddy Roosevelt wanted to impose a solution, but his Attorney General advised him that it was unconstitutional; so, Teddy Roosevelt had to craft a different solution. Several of Franklin Roosevelt’s initiatives were not successful. Both quickly took responsibility and changed tactics.
Do Not Take It Personally. Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt especially were able to seek advice and counsel from people who disagreed with them. In Lincoln’s case, one of his cabinet members had publicly humiliated him. Yet, they were never vindictive, recognizing that the solving the crisis was more important than their egos.
Keep your Word. While each allowed debate, once they made their decision, they kept their promise. Lyndon Johnson promised civil rights leaders that he would deliver legislation and refused to give up, despite a prolonged, and heretofore unbroken, Senate filibuster.
Share Credit. Each President took responsibility for mistakes, but shared credit for successes. Even Lyndon Johnson, who was known for having a huge ego, shared credit for the Civil Rights legislation with Congress.
We can use this scorecard to judge our current leadership in the COVID 19 crisis. But we can also use it as a blueprint for leadership in a crisis. Especially since this one isn’t over yet.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.