Leadership Is …Taking The Lead!

Subtitle: Learning Leadership from World Leaders

Summary: Wisdom from past US presidents informs mental health professionals  about leadership skills

Photos…see emails stock photos

Horizontal photo of Lincoln monument if we can use it…top of blog


The faces and assumptions of those in leadership in our government is at the very foundation of the safe and rich lives many of us enjoy.   It is impossible to enjoy an extraordinary life without solid leadership at the helm in the towns and countries we all call home.  When I teach colleagues about how to lead group  psychotherapy with families, groups and couples, I reacquaint myself with the work in social psychology and sociology that was central in my early training. 

A favorite source of expertise is from Presidential historian, Dr Doris Kearns Goodwin.  An  astute expert in understanding Leadership Insights from Great Presidents, she was at the right hand of Lyndon Johnson and has taught Harvard students about the American Presidency. From her website we learn that she is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author  of six critically acclaimed and TheNew York Timesbestselling books, including  Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history) No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.  Wait Till Next Year, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

Dr Goodwin did an Interview with Heather MacArthur as part of a blog by The Tanner Institute.   Ms.MacArthur recalled an earlier keynote speech by Doris Goodwin: “By studying the lives of others, we hope that we, the living, can learn from their struggles and their triumphs.” In the following interview, quotes from Dr Goodwin form the bulk of the interview with Ms. MacArthutr. (small photo of Goodwin)

 Goodwin interweaves her incisive points about history and leadership by recounting true stories about our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to reveal key universal leadership traints.

Tackle seriously challenging situations and remain level headed in the face of adversity. .“Early on, Lincoln possessed an unusual determination to rise beyond the adverse circumstances of his childhood on the frontier. Only as he grew older did he find consolation in the thought that if he could accomplish something worthy in his life, he would live on in the memory of others. That one’s honor, one’s reputation can outlive one’s earthly existence.”

“Franklin Roosevelt endured his own crucible in the form of a polio attack when he was in his 30s which left him a paraplegic. The paralysis that crippled his body, however, expanded his mind and his sensibilities. Far more intensely than before, he reached out to know people, to understand them, to pick up their emotions, to put himself in their shoes. No longer belonging to his old privileged world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and the underprivileged, with people to whom fate had also dealt an unkind hand which allowed him to connect to the people hurt by the economic catastrophe in ways he might never have been able to given his privileged background.”

2)Seek the challenge of opposing opinions by including the finest minds in your leadership team.“Both Lincoln and Roosevelt put together inner circles who had the freedom to disagree without the fear of consequence. The night of Lincoln’s election as president, he couldn’t sleep as he made the decision that would define his presidency to put each of his chief rivals into his cabinet. He was asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘It’s simple. The country is in peril. These are the strongest and most able men in the country. I need them by my side.’”

3)Openly discuss errors and learn from them.“When Franklin Roosevelt concluded a New Deal program wasn’t working, he simply created a new one in its place built upon an understanding of what had gone wrong. And more importantly, once war was on the horizon, he knew he had to change his relationship with the business community, which had been marked by hostility during the New Deal. So he put out an olive branch to the business community. He guaranteed profits to companies that were willing to transition from cars to planes and to tanks. He relaxed antitrust regulations, accelerated depreciation, provided tax breaks for building factories, creating in many ways the greatest partnership in American history between business and government.”

4)Give others credit for success as part of your leadership.  “Both men put past grievances aside, to create what has been called an emotional bank account within their inner circle, a reservoir of good feeling. Over and over, you see in Lincoln’s papers, handwritten letters to his cabinet members and people in the government praising them for work well done, telling them that he was wrong about something and they were right.”

5)Remain calm and in control.Hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “FDR exhibited control over his emotions. While his aides and cabinet members were running around in panic, he remained steady, absorbing the news, deciding what to do next. As each new report arrived, carrying news more terrible than the last, he was completely calm. His Secretary of State later said, in all the years in which he had seen the President, he had never had such reason to admire him.”

6)Storytelling and humor are powerful teaching tools.  “Lincoln’s greatest form of relaxation was actually his unparalleled sense of humor and his gifts for storytelling. He had become a storyteller even when he was a young lawyer on the circuit in Illinois. There, Lincoln developed a reputation so the people would come from miles around to listen to him tell funny stories as he would stand on the tavern with his back to a fire.”

7)Reach out to the people and connect during difficult leadership moments.  “Franklin Roosevelt traveled throughout the country during those early days of the war, visiting factory, shipyards, boosting the morale of the workers but even more, getting a feeling for how fast the country could move in what directions by being out among the people.

8)Be aware of the power of timing in leadership. .“Lincoln later said if the emancipation proclamation had been signed six months earlier, he would have lost the border states. If it had been signed any later, he would have lost the morale boost it provided.”

9)Use voice and presence to imbue confidence at difficult times.  “FDR’s very first inaugural set the pattern for his entire presidency. It conveyed a clear understanding of the difficulties the nation faced but projected such serene confidence in the fundamental strength of his countrymen that he renewed hope in millions who sent telegrams and letters saying, everything is going to be alright.”

“For most of us,” Goodwin concludes “the chance to have our story told may not be realized in the monument in Washington but rather through the memories of our children, our friends, and our colleagues. I’ll always be grateful for this curious love of history allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to believe that the private people we have loved and lost in our families and the public figures we have respected in history just as Lincoln wanted to believe, really can live on so long as we pledge to tell and to re-tell the stories of their lives.”


To consider:  As you consider those individuals who have influenced you most in your life, who comes to mind? What qualities from the list above would you attribute to them?  Do you have your own stories that need telling? Which qualities do you show that others find stimulating and helpful in their own development?

To read:  Team of Rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin.2006. Simon and Schuster. New York


To Explore:

·      The O.C. Tanner Institute, including interviews by Heather MacArthur,   (www.octannerinstitute.com) is  a global forum that researches  recognition. 

·      The work of Dr Goodwin is legendary on the power of the American Presidency (www.doriskearnsgoodwin.com).

·      Psychiatric residency training at Perelman Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania  (http://www.med.upenn.edu/psychres/)    trains physicians to become psychiatrists.

Norris Clark