Book review: Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Roberto Carmona and Joey Moore of Carmona Strategic Solutions

By Roberto Carmona of Carmona Strategic Solutions


Leadership in Turbulent Times (LTT) by Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s (DKG) is an excellent book on leadership which focuses on the lives, challenges and the exercise of leadership by four past U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt (TR), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)and Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). 

I had read other of DKG’s books on Presidential history such as “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” and “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”.  This book is not only a great source of presidential history, it also provides valuable insights for leaders. LTT provides a framework for assessing the exercise of leadership and the symbiotic relationship of the elected leader and the public interest. 


LTT is structured in three parts, Ambition and the recognition of leadership, Adversity and growth, and the leader and the times they led. DKG focuses on the crucible moments each of these four presidents faced in their times: their personal, professional lives and in their roles in the most important position in the world, serving as the President of the United States of America. 

Having had the opportunity to study leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I was familiar with the leadership analysis that DKG uses to extract the leadership lessons from her subjects. DKG frames her leadership examples as either technical challenges, those challenges which can be addressed by experience and knowledge of past situations, or an adaptive challenge, challenges that require creativity, innovation and out of the box thinking. Adaptive challenges are challenges based on the unknown and that lack a blueprint to follow. Adaptive challenges require responses that lead to discoveries, new learnings and effectively leveraging failures as sources of knowledge and insight to move toward solutions. 

Lincoln as a leader demonstrated effectiveness for bringing dynamic personalities, in his administration, together through his vision of a truly United States of America after the Civil War. Lincoln had the courage to make the case that slavery must end, while risking his presidency. He understood the cost was Civil War, but he also made sure to prepare to win the war. Leaders recognize fear as a reality, but they have to be brave and act. 


Theodore Roosevelt’s contributions as a leader, focused on his insight to position the role of the President in a new way. TR led the presidency as the representative of the public interest in a major coal miner strike between owners and workers. TR acted in a new role for the President, as actor that stepped up in a crisis that threatened to bring misery to the U.S. population dependent on coal to keep their homes warm and prepare for a freezing winter.  TR recognized inaction would have caused the nation economic disaster and untold human misery. TR repositioned the presidency as an advocate for the public. 


DKG provides an excellent narrative on the life and Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was first elected during the Great Depression. He had the responsibility of getting the nation’s economy moving forward in response to massive unemployment. The chapters on FDR provides insights on how to hit the ground running when addressing a crisis and how to see and communicate a bigger vision to keep his team focused on what is important,  how to manage his team made up of very talented individuals with different views on how to address their part in a crisis.  FDR credited and recognizing his team’s contributions in setting forth the successful programs, that cumulatively became the New Deal. 

The analysis of Lyndon Baines Johnson is the most complex, but I think most rewarding. LBJ became President when the nation was in crisis, as a result of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Taking the lessons from FDR, LBJ hit the ground running. He took JFK’s team and made them his own, and through his immediate action, getting the nation to work through their grief and focused on fulfilling JFK’s vision of the New Frontier.




LBJ’s legislative experience through his past roles as a Congressman and U.S. Senator provided him with a subject matter expertise on how to devise and successfully maneuver the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is an excellent example of responding to a technical challenge. LBJ took what JFK had been working on before his death and moved his predecessor’s agenda forward and transformed the New Frontier into the Great Society.

However, successful as LBJ was on the Civil Rights Act and transforming his vision into the goals of the Great Society, LBJ failed in his adaptive capacity to deal with the crisis in Vietnam. His vision of the world, full of legislative solutions and successful political experiences, was not effective ending the Vietnam War and helped to escalate the divisions caused by that war. 

In the end, LBJ’s legacy is complicated his success in transforming domestic policy and failure of a foreign policy that was stuck in a cold war mindset, that could not pivot from a technical challenge framework, when an adaptive framework was a more strategically appropriate approach. 

The end of LTT provides two valuable bibliographies on Presidential history and on the study of leadership, that will encourage an engaged reader to want to learn more about both subjects. 

Overall LTT is an excellent resource for understanding and exercising leadership, whether you are an elected official, a nonprofit leader, a public sector leader, a leader of your business and/or a leader of yourself.  

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