Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? This summary examines the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to answer some important questions about leadership.
Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership
Abraham: Lincoln was only twenty-three years old when he ran for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. He grew up very poor. His mother died when he was nine, and his father quickly remarried. Lincoln was a voracious learner and had marvelous retention of the things he studied. He learned to be a great storyteller from his father and spent a lot of time entertaining his friends with stories he took from preachers or the local courthouse. At twenty-one, he left his father’s house and moved to New Salem where he worked at the general store. He lost his first election but remained confident. Two years later, he ran again and won. Lincoln rose from nothing to become a respected leader in the state legislature, a central figure in the fight for internal improvements, an instrumental force behind the planting of a new capital, and a practising lawyer.
Theodore: Roosevelt was also twenty-three years old when he first entered the political world. Roosevelt grew up an unhealthy, fragile child who frequently fought attacks of bronchial asthma. Because of his weakened physical health, he poured himself into his intellectual and spiritual development. As a child, Roosevelt developed a passion for nature and wanted to become an ornithologist, an expert on birds. He began to train his physical body and build strength. Roosevelt went to Harvard for college, where he broadened every interest and honed his social skills. When Theodore was in college, his father passed away, devastating young Roosevelt. Though he grew up with privilege, he had fierce drive. He soon abandoned his naturalist career and decided to go into politics as a way to fight for the public good. Once he got started, it was clear that he had found his calling.
Franklin: Franklin Roosevelt came into politics a bit later in his life, at twenty-eight. Franklin had a fairly stable childhood and his personality flourished because of it. Franklin was warm, charming and bright. An only child, he believed that he was the centre of the world, but in later years, he learned to adapt to changing circumstances when he went to boarding school at fourteen. During his first semester at Harvard, his father suffered a fatal heart attack, and Franklin became the man of the family. At college, he worked hard for the university newspaper and developed many leadership skills. Franklin became a lawyer with the ultimate goal of becoming president of the United States. Due to long-visualized ambition and directed energy, he did it.
Lyndon: From the time Lyndon was a small boy, he identified with his father’s political ambitions. Growing up, his home was often tense, as his parents didn’t have the happiest marriage. Thus, he spent a lot of time at his grandfather’s house listening to stories about cowboys and developing his own storytelling skills. He went to college at Southwest Texas State Teachers College and started working for the college president, Cecil Evans. During a yearlong break from college, he became a principal of an elementary school and employed every leadership attribute he already possessed. He arrived first in the morning and left after everybody else. He loved working toward something larger than himself. Lyndon believed that storytelling was the key to successful debating and public speaking. Lyndon was determined, enthusiastic and passionate. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Lyndon as the director of the Texas National Youth Administration. Two years later, he ran for the House of Representatives and won. He was President Roosevelt’s protégé, and as time went on, his interest and support in the young congressman sharpened.
Adversity and Growth
Abraham: Studies of the development of leaders suggest that resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, is at the heart of potential leadership growth. In 1840, Abraham Lincoln fell into a depression so severe that his friends feared that he might kill himself. Prairie State was in its third year of recession and Lincoln shouldered the responsibility. He stepped down from legislature and called off his engagement with his fiancée Mary. For the next ten years, he reconstructed both his private and public life. When he was finally ready, he resumed his courtship with Mary and reentered politics. In 1848, Lincoln joined the presidential race and gained popularity concerning the issue of slavery. He lost the election and returned to Congress, eventually withdrawing from public life and focusing more on law. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, he dove into debates, urging to repeal the new law. The antislavery struggle brought him back into public life and in 1861, he was finally elected president.
Theodore: When Theodore was twenty-six, his mother and wife died on the same day. Theodore was destroyed, but he returned to work two days after the double funeral, using work as a way to mitigate his misery. However, his grief caught up with him and he soon retreated to a cattle ranch in Dakota to heal, grow and write. Two years later, he emerged stronger and revived. Shortly after returning home, he entered and lost a race for mayor of New York. Instead, he worked as a member of the Civil Service Commission for the next six years. In 1894, he began working as police commissioner, often going undercover to patrol the patrolmen. Roosevelt became a symbol and leader in the war against corruption. After that, he joined the Navy, and then the Army and gained more popularity. In 1898, he entered the governor’s race and won. He lived by the African proverb, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Eventually, he moved up to Vice President, and when McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he became the youngest man to occupy the White House in the history of the country.
Franklin: In 1921, a virus attacked Franklin Roosevelt’s nerves and he was bedridden for six weeks. Physicians concurred that he would not walk or stand on his own again. However, his irrepressible optimism provided the strength that carried him through this traumatic experience. He spent the next two years slowly and painfully strengthening the muscles in his body. The patience and perseverance he cultivated later helped him deal with the continuing problems of his presidency. He would not have been able to recover his physical and mental strength without Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Howe, and Missy LeHand. In 1928, Al Smith pressured Roosevelt to run for governor of New York. Roosevelt won the gubernatorial race but Smith lost the White House to Herbert Hoover. He worked hard as the Depression hit, and New York’s comprehensive relief program became a model for other states, establishing Governor Roosevelt as the leading spokesperson for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In 1932, he battled Hoover for the presidency and won.
Lyndon: In 1941, Lyndon Johnson failed to secure a Senate seat and it changed the nature of his ambition and pushed him into a depression. He returned to his seat in the House, disappointed and embarrassed, but when a Senate seat opened in 1948, he resolved to make one last try. After a near tie, Lyndon attained the seat by a mere eighty-seven votes. Shortly after, he suffered a heart attack, and doctors insisted that he not undertake any business whatsoever for a period of months. Thinking his career was over, he fell into a deep depression. But he received over four thousand letters of concern, condolence, and love in the hospital, and the letters encouraged him to get back on his feet. When he returned to the Senate in 1957, he passed a civil rights bill expanding federal authority to protect black citizens in a wide range of civil rights, including voting rights. A few years later, when John F. Kennedy decided to run for president, he chose Lyndon Johnson as his vice president. When Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon stepped into his place.
The Leader and the Times: How They Led
Abraham: When Lincoln became president, seven southern states had passed resolutions to secede from the Union and formed a government as the Confederate States of America. In response, he created a cabinet with independent, strong-minded men. In 1862, he held a special session of his cabinet to reveal his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln acknowledged when failed policies demanded a change in direction and exhausted all possibilities of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power. Eventually, his entire cabinet banded behind the president, likely due to his empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline and generosity of spirit. He understood the emotional needs of each member of his team. He never let past resentments fester. He controlled his anger and set a standard of mutual respect and dignity. He maintained perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse, and he always found ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, and replenish energy.
Theodore: Although Roosevelt and McKinley ran on the same ticket, they had many different political views. When Roosevelt swore into office, it was clear that a new leader was in charge, one who viewed the country’s challenges in a very different way than his predecessor. His leadership style differed as well. The way that he handled the Great Coal Strike of 1902 demonstrates his groundbreaking crisis management. Theodore calculated risks of getting involved. He secured a reliable understanding of the facts, causes and conditions of the situation. He remained uncommitted in the early stages. He looked at the past to provide perspective and was ready to grapple with abrupt intrusions that threatened the plans. He was visible to the public and cultivated support among those directly affected by the crisis. He assembled a crisis management team, framed the narrative and kept his temper in check. He documented proceedings each step of the way and prepared multiple strategies. And in the end, he left behind a record for the future.
Franklin: Roosevelt entered office during the terminal stage of the Great Depression. Yet he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to transfuse the nation. His first hundred days set in motion a turnaround that would forever alter the relationship between the government and the people. First, he drew an immediate sharp line of demarcation between what had gone before and what was about to begin. He restored confidence to the spirit and morale of the people by striking the right balance of realism and optimism. He infused a sense of shared purpose and direction. He explained to people what they could expect and what was expected of them. He led by example and forged a team aligned with action and change. He set a deadline and promised to meet it. He developed clear-cut ground rules with the press. He addressed systemic problems and launched lasting reforms. He was open to experimenting and designed flexible agencies to deal with new problems. He stimulated competition and debate. He encouraged creativity. He was ready to change course quickly when necessary. His gift of communication was a vital instrument to his success in developing a common mission, clarifying problems, mobilising action and earning the people’s trust.
Lyndon: After Kennedy’s assassination, there was chaos. Lyndon Johnson knew he needed to grasp the reins of power and do so without delay. Johnson led with his strengths. He simplified the agenda down to two essential items: the civil rights bill designed to end segregation in the South and the tax cut intended to stimulate the economy. He established the most effective order of battle. He made commitments and honoured them. He mastered the power of narrative because he knew that people were more easily influenced by stories. He knew when to take risks and how to rally support around a strategic target. He put his ego aside and identified the key to success. He set forth a compelling picture of the future. He gave stakeholders a chance to shape measures from the start. He knew when to hold back and when to move forward. He celebrated as a way to honour the past and to provide momentum for the future.