Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times” chronicles the lives, times and decisions of four American Presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson) – each of who lives through great challenges during their tenures. In the words of Goodwin:
[In the White House], at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others. Specific stories of how they led will explore the riddle: Do leaders shape the times or do the times summon their leaders?
“If there is not the war,” Theodore Roosevelt mused, “you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.” Roosevelt’s debatable notions voice opinions heard from the beginning of our country. “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed,” Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams in the midst of the American Revolution, suggesting that “the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
The four leaders presented in this book confronted “great necessities.” All took office at moments of uncertainty and dislocation in extremis. Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency at the gravest moment of dissolution in American history. Franklin Roosevelt encountered a decisive crisis of confidence in our country’s economic survival and the viability of democracy itself. Though neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson faced a national crisis on the scale of secession or devastating economic depression, they both assumed office as a result of an assassination, a violent rupture of the democratic mode of succession at a time when seismic tremors had begun to rattle the social order.
While the nature of the era a leader chances to occupy profoundly influences the nature of the leadership opportunity, the leader must be ready when that opportunity presents itself. One leader’s skills, strengths, and style may be suited for the times; those of another, less so.
…Four case studies…reveal these vastly different men in action during defining events of their times and presidencies. These four extended examples show how their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock. No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges and notches along its blade. While there is neither a master key to leadership nor a common lock of historical circumstance, we can detect a certain family resemblance of leadership traits as we trace the alignment of leadership capacity within its historical context.
All our leaders in India occupy their positions at the hour of the country’s greatest crises in the past 70+ years. They need to summon that same courage, confidence and wisdom to lead India to prosperity. India’s politicians have been singularly responsible for our lack of prosperity. This is a moment when they can together redeem their ilk and put the nation on a path of glory. But for that, they will need to rise above ego, mistrust and small-minded thinking. It is a journey they cannot do alone. Like Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings”, each of them needs to create a “Fellowship” – their own war cabinets.
Tomorrow: India needs War Cabinets (Part 7)