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Politics and Principles

Page 54

By Melissa Anders

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and political commentator has spent years studying and writing about some of America’s most well-known leaders – from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt. She’s penned six best-selling books and has appeared on several national television shows.

Goodwin worked as an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and later taught government at Harvard University, where she also earned her doctorate degree in government. Goodwin lives in Concord, Mass., with her husband, Richard.

What are some of your best examples of executive leadership?

People who I’ve written about, I’ve chosen deliberately because I wanted to spend time with them, which means that I already knew they were leaders in the best sense – whether that’s Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt, for example. I think what they seem to have in common are a number of patterns of behavior. They were more able to understand the situation in which they came into power. I think any business leader would have to understand … the opportunities and the challenges of the era in which he comes.

The next thing is how they assemble a team of people who can work together ultimately, but have strong enough views that they can question the leader and challenge him if necessary. And that’s of course where Lincoln excelled so much in creating that team of rivals. Even though each one of those leaders thought they were better than he was and should have been president, he kept them working toward a common goal of saving the union and winning the war.

Then there’s a whole series of traits that come into (play) … how you inspire a team to work through setting an example, shouldering responsibilities, or knowing how to deal with people, essentially. Giving them credit when they do things that are good and protecting their back when things go wrong.

What are some of your worst examples of executive leadership?

It depends on analyzing the challenges of the time in which you become a leader. So, you look at the predecessor for Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and he was a really good man. He had strong convictions, but he didn’t understand that the (Great) Depression was so deep that he had to take action that seemed against what he believed – that private charity and local government could handle the problem of depression, which was too big.

What are some pitfalls to avoid as an elected leader?

One of the major ones … is creating a team that is fearful of challenging you, so that they take your word as the only policy and it becomes a kind of a groupthink. … So, it’s important to allow yourself as a leader to listen to criticism and to make the people who work for you feel free that their jobs will not be in peril if they tell you that something doesn’t seem right.

Another one is just getting insulated from the people who you’re working with. There’s a sense in which when a leader gets into the White House, or a CEO into an office, that they’re protected from the actual constituents that they’re serving, and they don’t get out among them enough.

Share your thoughts on the 2016 presidential election, and what you think the electorate will be looking for.

I think they’d be looking for a leader who could cross party lines and get something done in Washington because there’s been such frustration at the polarization – not just during Obama’s administration, but it’s really been going on for a couple decades.

What’s your take on the impact of the Bush and Clinton legacies for candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton?

On the one hand, we hear people saying that it doesn’t seem right that a country like ours – that was founded on rebelling against a kingship and royalty and wanted to have ordinary people governing ourselves – looks like, at least at the moment perhaps, it has frontrunners (who) are part of a family dynasty. … The positive side of it is that they know what it’s like to be president. They’ve seen both the hardships of it and the triumphs of it, so they’re not going in as inexperienced people. … In the modern world when media and access to money is such a big step up, both Jeb Bush and Hillary have an enormous advantage that way.

How do you think the role of the president has evolved since the days of Lyndon Johnson?

What’s become harder since those days is during the 1960s there was a sense in which Republicans and Democrats stayed together in Washington on the weekends. The travel wasn’t as easy. They weren’t rushing home to raise funds for the escalating campaign pot, so they would stay together and play poker, drink together on the weekend, and they’d form friendships across party lines. That’s what made it possible for Lyndon Johnson to get the Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen to go with him on breaking the filibuster of the southern Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What are the biggest issues presidents have to worry about now that didn’t exist several decades ago?

I think the speed of decision-making has just escalated. When you think about John Kennedy when he had to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was able (to deal with it) for a certain number of days without it becoming public. And nowadays, it’s hard to imagine if a crisis begins that we won’t know about it within minutes, so it forces … presidents not only to make a decision quicker, but also at least to talk about it.