Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” explores the early lives, the formation, and the unique leadership circumstances of four US American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Each of these presidents faced crises in American history. One of the questions she explores is “do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times?”
Over the next several weeks, I plan to explore each of the presidents in Goodwin’s book, in conversation with Simon Walker’s “The Undefended Leader” and Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve.” I will specifically reference each in light of Walker’s Leadership Strategy Model. This post is to set the stage and reflect on the nature of leadership, especially in times of crisis.
As the inauguration of President Joe Biden unfolded this week, the challenges could not be more clear. A global pandemic. Economic uncertainty. Systemic racism. A fractured government that reflects the divides of the electorate. Global climate change. Poverty. Disease. War. Where to start? Regardless of one’s assessment of the previous presidential administration, there is no doubt this new administration gets started in a time of unrest.
Whether or not the Biden/Harris administration is up for the task will be revealed in time. “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 the opportunity presents itself.” Certainly there are aspects of both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ background, both personal and professional, that may have prepared them. Goodwin writes, “Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of leadership growth. More important than what happened to them was how they responded to these reversals, how they managed in various ways to put themselves back together, how these watershed experiences at first impeded, then deepened, and finally and decisively molded their leadership.” What gets forged in the crucible of challenge guides us as leaders.
To a degree, what develops may be skill, but something far more important also often emerges – character. Friedman defined his work as encouraging “leaders to focus on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than on techniques.” Character can impact a leader’s effectiveness just as much, maybe even more, than mere ability. Having the emotional intelligence that comes in knowing one’s self and being comfortable with who one is can influence how a leader responds to challenges.
Perhaps this era would qualify for the chapter in a “Leadership in Turbulent Times” sequel. But the onus is not just on a presidential administration, it is for anyone who bears the responsibility of leading others in this particular and peculiar season. How we lead is certainly shaped by our circumstances and our character. We could see this as a burden, or we could appreciate the opportunity and the trust God has placed in us, and also trust that for people of faith, we know that we are never alone in our work.
A Scripture text comes to mind. Mordecai the Jew, the adoptive father of Esther, the new queen of King Xerxes, challenges the queen to use her influence to save the Jews from genocide. “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” The question certainly invites us to consider our own leadership challenges and how we might have been equipped and sent for this exact day and need.
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) xii.
 Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 192.
 Goodwin, xiv.
 Ibid, xiii.
 Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 14.
 Esther 4:14b, (NIV).