Presidential historian shares her list of important traits.

In a speech titled “Leadership in Turbulent Times”—but one that could have been called “The Nine Habits of Highly Effective Leaders”—historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told a packed Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler University that past presidents have much to teach our current president.

“What history reveals is that even though problems change over time, there are traits—behavioral patterns—held in common by our most successful leaders,” she said in a speech on Monday, February 12, as part of the Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series.

Doris Kearns Goodwin at Clowes Hall on February 12, 2018.

Goodwin, who worked for President Lyndon Johnson and has written extensively and to great acclaim about the Roosevelts, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Johnson, and other presidents, said the greatest leaders:

  1. Are resilient. Lincoln dealt with death of family members and defeat, Theodore Roosevelt with death, Franklin Roosevelt with polio.
  2. Have the confidence to surround themselves with people who challenge them and provide diverse perspectives. Lincoln put his opponents in the cabinet. FDR had his cabinet members compete. She said Donald Trump’s foreign-policy advisors have opposed his views on NATO, Russia, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, the Iran nuclear deal, and China. As a result, Trump “has seemed to moderate some of his foreign policy ideas, if not his rhetoric.”
  3. Learn from their mistakes. She said Trump has already acknowledged that running the country and trying to fix healthcare are more difficult than he expected.
  4. Control impulses and emotions. Lincoln wrote long, often angry letters that he never sent. Goodwin suggested that Trump set up two Twitter accounts—a real one that he uses to be constructive and reach out, and a fake one to get his frustrations out without actually sending the tweets.
  5. Tell stories and speak simply. People remember anecdotes better than facts and figures.
  6. Develop productive relationships with the media. Both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt were accessible to the press, and neither was afraid to be criticized—or to criticize. “Presidents have always had their fights with the press, but despite individual blowups, they’ve traditionally respected the indispensable role that a free press has to play in our system of government,” she said. “Of all the concerns with the leadership of President Trump, this is the one that worries me the most.”
  7. Stay connected to the people they served. Lincoln walked the Civil War battlefields, Theodore Roosevelt traveled by train to listen to the people.
  8. Relax and take time to think. Goodwin said if spending time at Mar-a-Lago offers Trump that opportunity for relaxation and renewal, “I think it’s just fine. There are more important aspects of his presidency to focus upon.”
  9. Leave legacies that revealed a moral aspect to their leadership, a sense of common mission binding the country together. She said presidents must leave behind programs and legislation that advanced the cause of liberty, economic opportunity, and social justice. And if the leadership doesn’t provide it, citizens must.

“In almost every instance where positive change has come to our country, where the country has moved closer to regaining its original ideals of equality and opportunity, it has come from social movements,” she said, citing the anti-slavery, progressive, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental movements as examples.

“We’ve done it before as citizens,” she said. “We can do it again.”


Media contact:
Marc Allan