Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Written by: on February 25, 2021

Doris Kearns Goodwin closes her book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” with a chapter called, “Of Death and Remembrance.” She spends a few pages on each of the presidents featured in her book writing about the circumstances of their leaving the presidency and the impact their term had on the nation. Two of the presidents profiled died while in office while the other two “survived beyond their presidencies to experience the problematic aftermath of leadership.”[1]

Just as each of the four presidents profiled seemed to operate from a different leadership strategy, each one also demonstrated a different aspect of stepping out of power. On the day of his death, Abraham Lincoln was reported to have been in high spirits, more upbeat than perhaps any of day of his presidency. His wife even seemed surprised by his good cheer.[2] Lincoln was pleased with how the war was drawing to a close and the plan he had mapped out both for reuniting the country and dealing with those who had fought against him. A great weight was being lifted from him and the work he had done in building coalitions would surely be the foundation upon with the nation could rebuild. Sadly, an assassin’s bullet robbed the country of what could have been.

Franklin Roosevelt died 82 days into his fourth presidential term. His appearance had definitely revealed signs of physical decline over the last year of his presidency, but FDR’s sunny optimism and resolve to navigate the conclusion of WWII kept him going. FDR had also spent most of his life hiding the secrets of his health, both as a young boy to keep his father from worrying and also as Commander-in-Chief.[3] For all of his accomplishments, FDR demonstrates how even the most resilient leaders have limits and the toll it can take when the commander will not or cannot share the stage.

Theodore Roosevelt left the White House at the ripe old age of 50, but would only live another ten years. Teddy’s life post-presidency was restless and frustrating. He ran for president again in 1912 and was preparing for another run in 1920 before he died. Retirement was not well-suited for a man of action like TR. He longed to be in the mix, even petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to allow him to form a company of soldiers to fight in WWI.[4] The Scriptures say, “without a vision, the people perish.”[5] The Roughrider may have never lost his vision for what was possible and how he could serve, but without a role in the fight, he was lost.

The four years between Lyndon Johnson’s retirement and death were filled with regret. While he spoke proudly and energetically about his efforts toward civil rights, his thoughts never strayed from Viet Nam. He believed that “history’s judgment was already stacked against him.”[6] He put his energy into his Texas cattle ranch, but also tried to stay connected to current events and maintain a voice in the civil rights community. In many respects, LBJ was the epitome of a man with great ability and grand ideals who ultimately had to live with the sorrow of unfulfilled dreams and deep sadness of other roads not taken, especially with regard to decisions on foreign policy. He also seemed to anticipate death was near and had no intention of fighting it.

Eventually, every leader’s turn on the main stage comes to an end. The line from the musical “Hamilton” reminds us that “history has its eyes on you,” but the legacy of a leader is often a complicated, highly subjective compilation of accomplishments, failures, and personality. As much as we might like to control who tells our story, we really cannot. So perhaps as leaders it is best that we learn to live into our authentic selves, prepare for opportunities, press ahead with vision and resolve, and lead with conviction and character. And when it comes to an end, may we hear the voice of the only judge that matters telling us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 345.

[2] Ibid, 366.

[3] Ibid, 358.

[4] Ibid, 355.

[5] Proverbs 29:18

[6] Goodwin, 347.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    Such a poignant conclusion. If we lived toward that end, I wonder what kind of impact we’d truly have. Thanks for such thoughtful posts throughout this segment, John.

    • John McLarty says:

      I feel like living with integrity and authenticity puts us on that path. If we lead out of our true selves, then we don’t have to spend so much time trying to write our own legacy or worrying about how we will be remembered.

  2. Dylan Branson says:

    John, what would you say is your biggest takeaway from your biography? Was there a leader who stuck out to you above the rest that were mentioned?

    • John McLarty says:

      I enjoyed spending time each week with each of them. I’d always admired Lincoln and came away with even more appreciation. TR’s determination and zeal for life draws me in, but I also related to the melancholy that sets in when there isn’t a battle to fight. FDR was a machine, but there was a massive cost. And LBJ, whom Goodwin had worked for, came off much more sympathetically than he is often remembered. I also liked how the book took a specific crisis and analyzed those, rather than tell the entire story of the presidents’ terms. She also spent lots of time digging into the events of their childhood and early careers in order to draw the line from their formation to their approach in dealing with each crisis. I found that part fascinating. It’s a reminder to me that we are constantly being forged and shaped and that there will be new opportunities for us to lead because of that.

  3. Shawn Cramer says:

    While I like Walker’s use of the stage, I’m wondering if the concept of “main stage” plays into the vanity of celebrity. 72% of Gen Zers would like to be an online celebrity. There’s something about living faithfully and stewarding what we’ve been given. The godly desire of seeing the kingdom grow can be twisted into vainglory.

    • John McLarty says:

      I think at some point, any leader will have time front and center. To your point, I think there’s a pocket of folks who crave the spotlight but have no understanding of who they are or how to stay there. Reality talent shows have shown this- one can pretty easily separate the flash-in-the-pan from the one who has paid her dues. Now, the entertainment business is fickle and unreliable as a serious metaphor, but I think it’s clear that in any arena of leadership or influence, the ones who understand the art of backstage preparation usually have the lasting impact. Pastors who spend more time in the prayer rooms than in the pulpit. Performers who invest more time in rehearsals than shows. Leaders who appreciate the importance of reflection and thoughtfulness over infallible command. The allure of the spotlight can be seductive, there’s no doubt.

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    Thank you for sharing each of these leaders with us. Your insights into their lives has been much appreciated. With these last reflections- as leaders we’d be wise to be prepared to embrace different seasons of life. One way to do that is to not let the leadership role be our sole identity. Who are we post-pastor, post-business owner, post-executive?

    What will life look like for you when/if you retire? Who will you be when you’re not Pastor John McLarty?

    • John McLarty says:

      I think about that sometimes. In the UMC, one is ordained for life, so when a pastor retires, it’s technically just a change in their status with the Annual Conference. Retired pastors are supposed to continue to attend Annual Conference sessions and many of them continue to serve churches. I’ve always thought that when I hang it up, that’s going to be it. I’ve also felt a bit sad (maybe judgmental) when I see the “old guys” still showing up to meetings and hanging around. But I can also see how so much of our identity gets intertwined with our profession that it could be very disorienting not to have that. There’s also the aspect of wisdom and experience that might be a blessing to certain “up and comers” in the right setting. I think it really comes down to purpose and that might be more challenging to define outside of the regular routine of daily ministry.

  5. Greg Reich says:

    It was a joy to read your posts. In many ways despite our dark side the U.S. has had some out standing leaders throughout history. As you look back is their one key leadership principle you gained from the book?

    • John McLarty says:

      The common thread in the book, and what resonated most with me, is how each of these leaders were faced with significant challenges at the onsets of their presidencies, but how their upbringing and earlier life had prepared them. My opening post touched on this with regard to leaders being born or made, but what I saw was a convergence of character/personality, lessons learned in earlier arenas, and their approach to the specific leadership crisis. I don’t believe that God chooses our presidents, but I can definitely see how the person and circumstance aligned at just the right time, which makes me curious about how God might have been at work behind the scenes. The main lesson is about remembering that we are constantly being formed and each new iteration makes us more ready for what comes next.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Living into our authentic selves has a sameness to it.

    Despite the little difference between us, as leaders, as human beings we will experience the successes and failures, whether the spotlight is on us or not. Whether we have the attention of the masses or not.

    It seems there’s an integrity to live into that’s deeper than anything we can do or achieve. This living into our authentic selves, living into who we were made to be.

    I think of Jesus’, “before Abraham was, I am”, and Yahweh’s self-introduction, “I am”. Powerful, certain, definitive. Here is the self-differentiation of the Original, the Origin, Home. Perhaps, living into our authentic selves gives rise to the Undefended Leader within?

    John, thank you for sharing the journey in these last few weeks. I am thankful to learn from you and share a bit as we journey together!

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