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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Shares Leadership Lessons from Presidents at RMA Annual Conference

Presidential historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin commenced RMA’s first Annual Risk Management Virtual Conference Monday with inspiring and relevant-for-the-moment comments on leadership in turbulent times.

In a conversation with RMA President and CEO Nancy Foster, Goodwin said comparisons could be drawn between the coronavirus pandemic and other crises in American history, and that the U.S. has proven “we can deal with these kinds of crises and move forward.”

Goodwin, who was an aide to and then a biographer of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, cited lessons from Johnson and Presidents including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Donald Trump that can be applied by leaders today.

One quality presidents have shared, she said, has been their ability to capitalize on technology, from Lincoln communicating with generals in the field by telegraph, to FDR’s fireside chats on the newly popular medium of radio, to Trump’s use of Twitter.  

When asked by Foster to name some traits that make a great leader, Goodwin mentioned resilience, humility, and empathy. An underrated trait, she said, is the ability to “find time to think, relax, and replenish your energy.”

For FDR, she said, that meant cocktail parties with White House guests like UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill where talk of World War II was not allowed. Unfortunately, she said, Johnson was never able to pull away from the stresses of the job. Even when he was supposed to be lounging at the pool at his Texas ranch, he was constantly consulting reports that he stacked on rafts for easy access.

“In our world today, so many of us feel we don't have time to take off, to relax. Our communication devices go everywhere with us. People can reach us at any moment. We're too busy to relax and replenish. And yet the presidents I studied, they were pretty busy too,” said Goodwin.