Through a colleague/friend I was recently able to attend the advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the movie partly based on the book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
So much has been written about the 16th President of the United States that at times it’s hard to find something that doesn’t seem derivative and clichéd. But Goodwin’s book speaks to the core of what made Lincoln great and in turn illustrates what constitutes true leadership: Recognize and recruit the best people possible; include and even seek out opposing ideas, agendas and points of view; display the courage to hear out and really engage with those opposing viewpoints, not only with rigor but with humility and humour.
True leadership has little time for ‘yes-men’ and ‘group-think.’ After all is said and done there is a moment when decisions and actions have to be taken and the consequences of those decisions and actions have to be accounted for. That is what attracts us to political leaders caught in tumultuous times.
Here are some other titles that highlight US Presidents in crisis:
Mark K. Updegrove, Baptism by Fire: eight presidents who took office in times of crisis
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club
Robert Caro’s magisterial The Years of Lyndon Johnson (especially vol. 4 Passage of Power)
Jim Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan
Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make
Is our generation of leaders up to the challenge? It is well documented that Lincoln’s opponents and even members of his own cabinet dismissed his ‘country charm’ and underestimated his presence. It really does seem that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone…