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Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 9 Tips for Bold Leadership

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 5, 2020 • 5 min read

What makes a good leader? Is it visionary thinking? Robust communication skills? A hands-on leadership style? A knack for nimble decision-making and problem-solving? In fact, great leaders possess all of these important qualities. From politicians to teachers to business leaders, people in leadership roles excel when they exhibit traits both innate and learned.

One way to study leadership traits is to examine how they manifest in leaders on the front lines of world affairs. Few leadership positions are as influential as that of the president of the United States, and by studying some of the people who have held the office of U.S. president, you can learn what bottom line qualities turned them into better leaders. As a biographer and historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin knows exactly which good leadership qualities are essential to the U.S. presidency.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin Teaches U.S. Presidential History and LeadershipDoris Kearns Goodwin Teaches U.S. Presidential History and Leadership

Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin teaches you how to develop the leadership qualities of exceptional American presidents.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 9 Tips for Bold Leadership

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose groundbreaking scholarship and keen insights have reshaped the way we view the American presidency. Doris defines leadership as “the ability to use talent, skills, and emotional intelligence to mobilize people to a common purpose.” But where does this ability come from? As her research into the lives of some of our greatest presidents shows, the empathy, humility, resilience, and self-awareness that characterize successful leaders can come from many sources. Here are a few practices that can help you become a better leader:

  1. Embrace your innate character traits. Abraham Lincoln showed unique sensitivity to the lives of others from an early age. Theodore Roosevelt was born with a ravenous curiosity. Lyndon Johnson seemed to have limitless reserves of energy. FDR was endlessly optimistic. All of these later manifested as leadership qualities when these men served as presidents of the United States.
  2. Cultivate traits that contribute to leadership skills. Most leaders improve their skills by magnifying talents that can be honed over time through discipline and focus. Though brilliance may be an asset to some leaders, perseverance and hard work are essential to set a tone that can inspire and mobilize others. Humility, knowing yourself, and learning from mistakes are all hallmarks of great leadership.
  3. Accept constructive criticism and self-analysis. The best leaders are the ones with a willingness to reflect upon and work to better their own temperament and character. Humility, often misunderstood as a weakness or insecurity, is, in fact, the opposite—it demonstrates a lack of personal pretension and a commitment to self-improvement that helps leaders transform personal ambition into a larger desire to promote the greater good.
  4. Adjust in the face of adversity. The key to effective leadership is the ability to respond to circumstances you may not be prepared for—not just by reacting but by embracing the unexpected as an opportunity for learning and growth. Suffering and failure are inevitable in both politics and life. However, the best leaders demonstrate the ability to overcome adversity in the face of frustration and can extract wisdom from the experience.
  5. Learn from the unexpected. Doris illustrates this with the example of Theodore Roosevelt. Following a series of devastating personal losses, Roosevelt’s own philosophy of leadership was reshaped, leading him to abandon the conventional path to national leadership he had embarked upon as a state legislator. He sidestepped mainstream politics to become a federal civil service commissioner, New York’s police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, and Army colonel before becoming governor of New York. Those unlikely choices gave Roosevelt a deep understanding of his colleagues as well as his constituents, the system, and how to lead, establishing his reputation as a reformer and putting him on an unusual but ultimately successful path to the presidency.
  6. Admit when you are wrong. Amid the tensions of the Cold War, Richard Nixon took the unprecedented step of embarking on the first presidential trip to China, with the goal of better understanding America’s supposed enemy. The televised visit was called “the week that changed the world” and provided a window into Chinese life that challenged long-standing myths about the country and began the process of clearing up fundamental misunderstandings. Historians marveled at the fact that Nixon, who’d built his career disparaging communist nations, made this trip; doing so was a tacit admission that some of his past positions may have been ill-considered.
  7. Respect your team members. Regardless of the varying needs of organizations, some aspects of effective leadership never change. All teams benefit from a culture of respect that begins at the very top, reassurance that they will be supported as they execute shared visions or take big risks and a sense that their leader is aware of how his or her actions impact his or her collaborators.
  8. Tailor your message to your audience. Communication is crucial to successful leadership. Through well-prepared and well-delivered messages, you can mobilize the people around you or change their perspectives about issues of collective concern. A keen awareness of how to tailor your rhetoric to a given issue and your audience is key to effective communication. So, too, is an intimate familiarity with the media of the age. Theodore Roosevelt entered the presidency during the rise of modern reporting and the national press. In his communications, he echoed the punchy style of national newspapers, talking in headlines like, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” and “Don’t hit until you have to—and then hit hard!”
  9. Practice self-care. As a successful leader, you must remain accessible while also making time for yourself. Even if rest, replenishment, and having time to think are three of the most undervalued elements of leadership, they’re key to meeting challenges with consistency and vigor in the long run. Devoting time to self-reflection, friends, family, and personal interests was critical to the success of many of the presidents Doris has studied. Abraham Lincoln immersed himself in the theater. Theodore Roosevelt fortified himself through exercise and outdoor pursuits. FDR decompressed during a regularly scheduled cocktail hour with close friends. Regardless of their preferred pastimes, the moments these men carved out time for themselves contributed to their well-being.
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Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass for exclusive access to video lessons taught by luminaries, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Chris Voss, Sara Blakely, Bob Iger, Howard Schultz, Anna Wintour, and more.

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