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Thought leadership

January 21, 2020

30-second reviews

We review insights from behavioural economics books to reconnect you with useful things you might have already read – and help connect those ideas to investor behaviour.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2018)

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has taken something she knows a great deal about – writing presidential biographies – and turned it into a unique hybrid: a business-book/presidential biography bestseller. Released in late 2018, Leadership in Turbulent Times draws compelling portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. A simple explanation of this sampling is that Kearns Goodwin has already written bestselling biographies of the four presidents. So, if this were music, Leadership might be her “greatest hits” album, with one new track thrown in to satisfy fans.

This explanation, however, would be unfair, as the judicious selection, ordering and interpretation of the various stories makes it a unique work. Furthermore, as the title states, these “turbulent times” through which each president governed, represent four of the most challenging periods to the Republic. In addition, though slightly more than a century separated the first and last of these presidents’ terms, there are inevitable ties between their work.

Kearns Goodwin has organized Leadership in Turbulent Times into three parts. The first covers the upbringing and young adulthood of each man; the second, called “Adversity and Growth,” studies extreme setbacks each leader faced early in his political career; and the third, “The Leader and the Times: How They Led,” examines their time in the White House.

Each of the three parts is essential to the purpose of the book, which is to highlight what makes a leader, and what leadership looks like. “Part 1: Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership” illustrates that leaders are more “made” than born, and that there is no single path. Lincoln’s father thought that school kept his son away from real work, and even burned his books on one occasion. Lincoln had to defy his father to become educated outside of the school system, walking miles to borrow a single book. The two Roosevelts, on the other hand, benefitted from wealthy, connected parents who were committed to enriching their sons’ experiences. And Johnson, whose father, Sam Johnson, had served in the Texas state legislature for eight years, was fascinated with politics from a young age.

The second section, detailing each president’s personal crisis, illustrates the maturity and focus that can come from a setback. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, contracted polio at the age of 39, and lost the ability to walk. He withdrew from politics at this time and undertook various treatments, including swimming regularly to increase his arm strength. He also threw himself into helping others cope with this devastating disease. He bought the financially troubled Warm Springs resort in Georgia and transformed it into a rehabilitation centre for polio patients like himself. His personal struggle and his refocus on helping others during this period later proved crucial as he worked to guide the U.S. through the Great Depression as president.

The final section draws lessons from each president’s leadership. For example, in the chapter titled “Transformational Leadership,” we get a front-row seat to the political battles leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln assembled “the most unusual cabinet in American history, representing every faction of the new Republican Party – former Whigs, Free Soilers, and antislavery Democrats, a combination of conservatives, moderates, and radicals, of hard-liners and conciliators.” In other words, if you want to transform something, you don’t need like-minded adherents. Facing such a nation-changing moment, Lincoln chose to work with a team of rivals rather than a collection of yes-men.

There are several reasons to read business books: to learn specific methods that will increase business growth; to gain a deeper understanding of companies, geopolitics or economies, or; to draw inspiration from the success stories of others. Certainly, Leadership in Turbulent Times falls into the last category. Its value is in tying personal stories to leadership development, and in identifying specific leadership behaviours during crises. It also provides greater context for understanding the divisions that continue to shape the U.S.: race (Lincoln), labour vs. management (Teddy Roosevelt and the Coal strike of 1902), haves vs. have-nots (FDR’s New Deal), and race again (Johnson and civil rights).


This document is published by Sun Life Global Investments (Canada) Inc. and contains information in summary form. This document is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to provide specific individual financial, investment, tax or legal advice. Views expressed regarding a particular company, security, industry or market sector should not be considered an indication of trading intent of any mutual funds managed by Sun Life Global Investments (Canada) Inc. These views are not to be considered as investment advice nor should they be considered a recommendation to buy or sell.

Information contained in this document has been compiled from sources believed to be reliable, but no representation or warranty, express or implied, is made with respect to its timeliness or accuracy. This document may contain forward-looking statements about the economy, and markets; their future performance, strategies or prospects. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and are speculative in nature and cannot be relied upon.

© Sun Life Global Investments (Canada) Inc., 2019.

Sun Life Global Investments (Canada) Inc. is a member of the Sun Life Financial group of companies.

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