Don’t get me wrong. You should read this book. You will learn much that you did not know about four important American presidents: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But the conclusion you should reach is not that there’s a universal template for leadership. Rather the reverse... A bigger problem is that some rules seem to contradict others. For example, Goodwin glosses Lincoln’s decision on emancipating the Southern slaves as follows: “Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.” Her emphasis throughout the chapter on Lincoln’s presidency is on the single-mindedness with which he pursued emancipation...All this leaves the reader confused because we are not clearly enough told: context is king... There is much here to enjoy, to be sure. Yet I was struck by how seldom the later presidents referred back to their predecessors. Even Goodwin herself does this too seldom to give this book coherence.
Goodwin makes clear that leadership is not just a story of one person influencing a group towards an outcome, but “a two-way street” that links individual character, the contributions of teams and the popular context. Her four presidential 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”.
The conceit might sound a little trite but Goodwin is one of the greatest US historians alive and her knowledge of the subject is such that even old cynics can learn something new and succumb to her brand of American idealism. It’s impossible, for instance, not to read about Lincoln and fall madly in love with him – although not on account of his looks... But the biggest test is a politician’s reaction to tragedy. The chapters dealing with adversity form the best part of the book, and are necessarily the most sensitive. Goodwin teases out what separates really remarkable people from the rest of us: they suffer, they heal and they get stronger.
Conservative readers will notice that all four of Goodwin’s guys are progressives of one stripe and another. Squeamish readers will be happy to see that the name of Donald Trump appears nowhere in the text or the index. Those who read between the lines, though, will see that the whole book is a sort of commentary on Trumpism. Every skill, and every character trait that Goodwin picks out as essential to great leadership is markedly absent in Trump, and the achievements of her heroes cast an unsparing light on Trump’s boasts about his administration’s success. Still, it is possible to read this book simply as a rousing story of great leadership in the past, without dwelling on the failures of the present.
Goodwin acknowledges all of this but makes a persuasive, even profound case for a bond that not only draws four disparate presidents together but also has lessons for those with no political ambition. These are presidential stories but they are also personal ones. These were four extraordinary, even peculiar characters but their drive and failures can be recognised by the mass... The brilliance of her work should not be dimmed by the realisation that it will not inform the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For anyone who hasn’t read the stories of these presidents, Leadership will prove a handy purchase, containing well-written summaries of their lives, telling the stories with the verve one should expect from a master storyteller... Do not, however, expect more than that...So it is always a weakness when a book seeks to use a few examples of leaders to identify the common characteristics of leaders... She says that a great leader is someone who fits the nation’s problem. They are, she says, the key that fits the lock. I am not sure this book is.