In her 2018 study Leadership in Turbulent Times, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tackles a subject that could not be more relevant. Drawing on the life and lessons of four U.S. presidents, Goodwin holds up the achievements, foibles, and resilience of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. She examines how each came to be known for leadership as they dealt with civil war, the inequalities of the Industrial Age, the twin crises of global economic depression and war, and, finally, the struggle for civil rights.
Leadership, in other words, in times of crisis and transformation. Something like the times we are in at the moment.
I’m in the midst of reading Goodwin’s study. However, her examination in the opening chapter of the young Abraham Lincoln, and one quality she calls out from that period, came to mind this week after hearing the hate speech of the current resident of the White House directed at Somali Americans in Minnesota.
In contrast to the powerful having a sense that they can bully and hurt the vulnerable for their own political profit, Goodwin notes that the young Lincoln “possessed a profound sense of empathy (emphasis added).” He was able to put himself in the place of others. In doing so, he could “imagine their situations and identify their feelings.”
We are currently grappling with what happens to our nation when all sense of empathy leaves those at the height of power, if it was ever present in the first place. We are seeing what happens when humor is used not to uplift spirits, but to degrade our fellow human travelers.
Goodwin tells us that the young Lincoln’s humor could run amok, “his light mockery turning vindictive, even cruel.” She gives an example when Lincoln—in response to a rival’s light-hearted political jousting at his expense—resorted to mimicry and “scathing ridicule.” Lincoln, apparently, was a master at this type of humor and his rival, sitting in the audience, broke down in tears. In the vernacular of today, Lincoln’s performance “went viral.”
But what he does next is just one example from many of why he became a great leader. Lincoln realized he had overstepped. He went and found his rival and gave a heartfelt apology. The memory of the event stayed with him for years and led Lincoln to “rein in his impulse to throw a hurtful counterpunch.”
We live in a day and age when an hour-long presidential “address” is nothing but a grievance-filled counterpunch, intended to hurt, tear-down, and destroy political rivals.
Why was Lincoln able to rein in his impulses? “He was after,” Goodwin asserts, “something more significant than the gratification of an artfully delivered humiliation (emphasis added).”
In real leaders, the proper aspirations and vision can lead to a place where empathy and humor are used to build up rather than divide and destroy.
Have a good week.
More to come…