From Lincoln to FDR: 8 leadership traits that transcend time

Lincoln Memorial

What leadership lessons can advisors glean from the presidencies of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR? Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin examines the traits that you can adopt to help guide clients through today's most pressing issues.

Key Points

  • Changing markets. Disruptive technologies. Generational, cultural, and political shifts. 

  • Each of these forces can affect how investors behave—and require you to rethink the way you serve them.

  • When these types of issues arise, where can you turn for the inspiration to lead?

  • The answer may come from looking through the lens of history.

Drawn from fascinating anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Doris Kearns Goodwin has uncovered eight core traits that define leadership through the ages. By recognizing attributes shared by some of our nation's greatest presidents, we can begin to understand the characteristics that underpin leadership and adapt those traits to more effectively address modern-day issues.

In 1967, Goodwin had just been selected as a White House Fellow to serve under President Lyndon B. Johnson. During a party in honor of the new Fellows, as Johnson danced with her, he declared “that he wanted me to be assigned directly to him in the White House,” Goodwin recalls. She wasn't so sure he'd still feel the same way two days later, when an article that she had co-authored—criticizing his handling of the Vietnam War and calling for his removal from office—was published. But Johnson's response to the article surprised Goodwin: “'Bring her down here for a year, and if I can't win her over, no one can.'”

So began her fascination with the presidency. Fifty years later, Goodwin is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on American presidents.

“By studying the lives of others, we have to hope that we can learn from their struggles and triumphs,” she says. “In the course of living with these presidents [as a historian], I have come to see that even though problems change over time, there are certain traits and behavioral patterns that are held in common by our most successful leaders.”

1. Be resilient

“The ability to sustain one's ambition in the face of frustration—to motivate oneself through adversity, loss, and trials of fire—is a key leadership trait,” Goodwin says.

Early in his life, Teddy Roosevelt encountered physical limitations and personal tragedy that might have derailed him, says Goodwin. But he chose to embrace his situation, turning suffering into triumph.

Roosevelt was a sickly child who suffered from asthma. During his teen years, he undertook a strenuous physical exercise program that helped him develop a strong physique and lifelong discipline.

He also suffered emotional trauma at a young age. His father passed away while Roosevelt was in college. A few years later, his wife and mother died of separate illnesses on the same day, in the same house. Emotionally devastated, Roosevelt sought consolation in nature. He retreated to the Dakota Badlands and immersed himself in cattle ranching. This experience, says Goodwin, kindled Roosevelt's enduring appreciation of the wilderness and culminated in his legacy as one of America's greatest conservationist presidents. While in the Badlands, Roosevelt healed emotionally and was able to return to politics.

“The ability to bounce back after tremendous sorrow gave him perspective later in life when he faced triumph or defeat in various elections,” Goodwin says. “Roosevelt said he had ‘known sorrow too bitter and joy too keen to allow me to be either cast down or elated for more than a very brief period over success or failure.”

2. Surround yourself with opposing perspectives

Goodwin believes the nation's greatest presidents have each demonstrated the confidence to surround themselves with people who were willing to debate them, provide diverse perspectives, and question their assumptions. As a result, she says, these presidents were able to pull together a team “guided by their vision and skill in creating a culture of sharing credit and shouldering blame in which the team members were inspired to perform at the highest level.”

At a time when the nation was deeply divided and talk of secession was rife in the South, Lincoln deliberately placed his chief rivals—ideologically and politically—in positions of power, such as by appointing his fellow contenders for the Republican presidential nomination to cabinet positions.

“When asked why he was doing this, Lincoln replied that the country was in trouble: ‘These are the strongest and most able men in the country, and I need them by my side,'” Goodwin recounts.

3. Learn from mistakes through self-reflection

The nation's most effective presidents continually grew in their roles, learned from their missteps and failures, and took time to self-reflect.

In response to the Great Depression, the first iteration of FDR's signature New Deal domestic program led to a series of federal programs, experimental projects, reforms, and regulations that transformed nearly every aspect of American life. When the first New Deal ran into political and public opposition and legal setbacks, Goodwin notes, FDR made a course correction. His second New Deal, based on a deep understanding of what went wrong with the first program, contained even more aggressive reforms.

At the onset of World War II, FDR sought to rebuild trust within the business community—which had felt alienated by the New Deal—to support the wartime effort. He melted hostilities, appointed top CEOs to run government agencies overseeing the production of war materials, and provided tax breaks for the building of factories. Also, FDR guaranteed profits to companies willing to transition from manufacturing cars to building planes and tanks, and he granted these companies accelerated depreciation of their investments. FDR's ability to learn from past mistakes resulted in the “greatest business-government relationship in history,” says Goodwin.

4. Control your impulses

Great presidential leaders are almost always able to control their impulses and emotions, she says.

Goodwin recalls a letter she received from the chief executive officer of a major company in which he wrote, “Thank God for Lincoln.” The CEO described how he had written a scathing email to a subordinate whom he thought had erred, but decided to postpone sending the message. The next morning, the CEO found out that he had been wrongly informed about the employee.

Lincoln was also known to write heated letters when he was upset, but he would then wait until his anger subsided before deciding whether to send them. One of the best-known examples, Goodwin says, took place after the Battle of Gettysburg—the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Lincoln penned a long letter to General George Meade conveying his distress that Meade had failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee and his defeated Confederate Army as they retreated: “He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”1Fortunately, Lincoln never sent the letter, knowing it would have left Meade feeling disconsolate. Ultimately, the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the turning point of the Civil War.

5. Stay connected with your team and your clients

The nation's most effective presidents found ways to stay connected with the people whom they served, Goodwin says. Lincoln, for example, visited Civil War battlefields because “he wanted to walk amidst the thinning ranks of the soldiers, visit the wounded in the hospital, bolster morale, and assess the situation directly.”

Lincoln also met with ordinary citizens, allowing them to talk about whatever they wanted. “I must never forget the popular assemblage from which I have come,” he observed.

“These meetings gave him a feel for the current public sentiment, allowing him to become, as all leaders must, a master of timing,” says Goodwin.

Lincoln's understanding of the public's mood also enabled him to orchestrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation at a time when it garnered maximum political support. His well-timed action also boosted public morale in the midst of the Civil War by transforming the fight into a battle for human freedom.2

6. Master the art of effective communications

The greatest presidents had a keen sense for “speaking to their countrymen with stories, everyday metaphors, and a beauty of language, when necessary,” Goodwin says. These leaders also knew how to communicate through the medium that best suited the times.

FDR was masterful at using radio to appeal directly to the public, explaining his policies in common language to instill confidence and gain people's support. He used a series of 28 fireside chats to lead Americans through the Great Depression and a banking crisis, to explain his New Deal programs, and to reassure the nation during World War II.

Goodwin recounts novelist Saul Bellow's description of hearing a fireside chat as he walked down a Chicago street one summer evening. Drivers had pulled over, rolled down their windows, and opened their car doors as they listened to FDR on their radios. “You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by,” Bellow wrote. “You felt joined to these unknown drivers … not so much considering the president's words, as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”3

7. Know how to relax

Great leaders make time for themselves.

“They all understood how to relax, replenish their energy, shake off anxiety, and find time to think,” says Goodwin, while also acknowledging that this is harder to do in today's always-connected world.

While serving as president, Teddy Roosevelt exercised daily—a horseback ride, a wrestling contest, a tennis match, or a strenuous hike in a nearby park—as his chief means of relaxation and renewal.

Jean Jules Jusserand, French ambassador to the United States during the Roosevelt administration, described in his memoir the first hike they took together. Jusserand was caught off guard when Roosevelt stripped off his clothes to cross a wide creek. Goodwin says Jusserand “saw the president unbutton his clothes and heard him say, ‘Well, this is an obstacle. We have to go through it. We had better strip so as to not wet our things in the stream.' ‘So I, too,' recalled Jusserand, ‘for the honor of France, removed my apparel, except my lavender kid gloves. To be without gloves would be most embarrassing should we meet ladies on the other side.'''4

8. Make moral leadership part of your legacy

The finest presidents, Goodwin says, create legacies that reveal a moral aspect to their leadership —such as leaving behind programs and legislation that advance the causes of liberty, economic opportunity, and social justice.

Lincoln's is the quintessential example of a presidency that had a consistently moral character, she says. He won the Civil War, abolished slavery, and preserved the nation. His ambition to be remembered for “leaving the world a better place, to outlive his earthly existence through his honor and reputation” carried Lincoln through his dismal childhood, his laborious efforts to educate himself as a young man, his string of political failures, and his darkest days during the war.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy recounted how, during a visit with a remote tribe in the Caucasus region at the border of Europe and Asia, the tribal chief wanted Tolstoy to tell him about Lincoln: “The man who spoke with the voice of thunder, who laughed like the sunrise, and who came from that place called America.” As Tolstoy later explained to a newspaper reporter, Lincoln's greatness was “due to the integrity of his character and the moral fiber of his being, the ultimate standard for judging our leaders.”

Questions to consider

As an advisor who must deal with pressing issues—such as the evolving demographics of wealth, the implications of geopolitics in financial markets and the economy, the rise of fintech, longer life spans, and a changing retirement landscape—how can you exhibit strong leadership?

We invite you to use the questions below to reflect on how you might adapt the timeless leadership qualities of past presidents as you tackle issues in your daily work and life: 

  • What personal experiences have strengthened your resilience, and how can you apply them today?
  • What changes in financial services are affecting your firm the most, and how are you using team collaboration to adapt?
  • How have you integrated lessons learned from past accomplishments and missteps into your current approaches?
  • How do you respond to troubling situations? What adjustments could you make to better resolve such crises?
  • How might you strengthen your connections and better empathize with clients as a means of providing trusted direction?
  • In a continually changing business, regulatory, and political climate, what are your most effective methods for staying connected with teammates and clients?
  • How can you carve out personal balance and maintain a healthy perspective in an always- connected business environment?
  • What drives your long-term vision, and how can you use it to improve the lives of others?

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Historian and best-selling author

About Doris Kearns Goodwin

Called “America's historian-in-chief” by New York magazine, Goodwin is a world-renowned presidential historian, public speaker, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author. She has written six New York Times best sellers and is currently preparing a book about presidential leadership. Goodwin worked with Steven Spielberg on his film Lincoln, which was partly based on her book Team of Rivals. She has also been interviewed extensively for several documentaries and by Ken Burns for his PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. 

Goodwin frequently appears on television and has taught government at Harvard University, where she received a doctoral degree. In addition to serving as a White House Fellow under President Johnson, she became his assistant and eventually helped him prepare his memoirs. Goodwin is the recipient of numerous honors, among them the Charles Frankel Prize given by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, and the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.

We hope these stories inspire you to think about how you can further define and adapt your leadership style to be more effective. Your Schwab relationship manager can help you understand what other resources may be useful.

This article is drawn from a Schwab event. Our events offer insight into industry trends and connect advisors with industry icons, entrepreneurs, leading academics, and analysts.If you're thinking about becoming an independent advisor, consider a custodian that invests in your success. Contact us to learn more about the benefits of a custodial relationship with Schwab.