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A Gift for Storytelling: Doris Kearns Goodwin

By Net Assets posted 12-20-2018 08:13 AM


Leadership |

From the archives: A conversation between Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, and Jeff Shields, NBOA's president and CEO.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 Net Assets. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin delivered the keynote on the opening day of the 2015 Annual Meeting, Monday, February 23, 2015, in Boston. NBOA's Jeff Shields spoke with her about several key meeting themes, including the Green Monster at Fenway Park and lessons from presidential leadership.

Jeff Shields: You’re a lifetime baseball fan, beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers and for many years the Boston Red Sox. Why is baseball so special for you?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: It began with my family. I grew up in Long Island, and my father taught me how to keep score when I was six so I could recount that afternoon’s Dodgers game when he came home from work in New York. Later, after the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for L.A. and I moved to Boston, I became a Red Sox fan. My husband and I have now had season tickets for 35 years, and I’ve given that same love of baseball to my sons. There’s just something really special about sharing a sport like baseball when you live in a place where the game is played so many months of the year, from spring training to October if you’re lucky. It allows you to really connect to one another as well as to the team, and to the place where you live.

JS: The Washington Nationals have brought a lot of baseball love to D.C., and it’s been great to see our nation’s capital become a little bit more connected with our “national pastime.” It’s not quite like Boston, yet, of course, but we’re working on it.

DKG: I think it’s great. I have a relationship with the Nationals because of the presidential mascots [who run the bases during breaks in the games]. One of them, Teddy Roosevelt, kept losing and losing, and then after he started winning they were eliminated from the playoffs. They should have kept him losing. He was a good luck charm. Then they added Taft, and I had a picture taken at Nationals Park with Teddy and Taft.

JS: Speaking of baseball, the theme of our upcoming conference in Boston is Conquering the Green Monster, referencing both Fenway Park and the daunting challenges that our members, the CFOs of independent schools, face in their work. Do you know how the legend of the Green Monster began?

DKG: I gather what happened is that they originally built a wall when the park was built in 1912 to keep out spectators who didn’t pay for admission. Over time the wall was changed, and in the 1940s it was painted green and became known as the Green Monster. It’s so interesting, because rather than keeping people out it has become such a symbol of Fenway that it probably brings more people in these days.

JS: That’s a great way to look at it. Do you have a special memory involving a home run at Fenway?

DKG: Oh, for anyone who’s a Red Sox fan that would be Carlton Fisk’s home run in game six of the 1975 World Series. There was a question of whether the hit would be fair or foul, and there’s a famous video showing him standing near home plate, moving his arms, willing the ball to be fair. And it was.

JS: Were you at that game?

DKG: Yes!

JS: A historian was there when history was made. How did your interest in American presidents begin?

DKG: When I was 24 years old I was chosen to be a White House fellow during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. I was a Harvard graduate student studying history, and my PhD thesis was on the Supreme Court. But instead of that becoming my specialty, I stayed at the LBJ White House for six years and then accompanied him back to his ranch to help him with his memoirs. That time definitely led to my becoming a presidential historian.

After that book came out, I ended up writing about JFK, FDR, Lincoln and finally Teddy and Taft, with The Bully Pulpit. But there’s no question that the personal experience of working directly with Johnson informed my career. It was such a privilege to have spent so many hours with him at a time in his life when he was able to really open up and talk to me in ways that, had this been the height of his power, he wouldn’t have been able. It was an extraordinary experience, and I still consider it one of the great privileges I had as a young girl.

JS: All presidents are larger than life, but LBJ seemed to have had an especially large presence and personality. Is there a particular character trait that you remember about him?

The efforts he put into developing relationships that made the difference—that enabled him to get so much done.

DKG: The most extraordinary thing about him, especially compared to the current dysfunctions of Washington, where nobody is able to get along with anyone else, was just his ability to get Congress to act on so many great civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare in 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. What allowed that to happen was not simply having Democratic majorities in Congress, but his knowing how to get Democrats and Republicans to work together. He’d call them at 7 in the morning, in the middle of the night, have them for dinner and lunch and to the White House at any hour. He had enormous energy and understood how to get things done in Washington, across party lines. Now, 50 years later, it looks even more magical.

JS: Yes, it was really the efforts he put into developing relationships that made the difference—that enabled him to get so much done.

DKG: I think that’s true. Certainly the opportunity was there because of the big majority he won in 1964. But a lot of those bills passed with Republicans as well as Democrats. That was him reaching across aisles and knowing how to give credit to the people who were part of it as well as knowing how to push people to do what he wanted. It was a mixture of carrots and sticks. He knew Congress probably better than anyone we’ve had.

JS: His decision to not run for reelection must have been one of the most difficult a president can face. Any insight as to how that weighed on him?

DKG: He talked to me about that. By March of 1968, he felt paralyzed as president. He was ready to make some sort of a bombing halt with Vietnam, but he knew they’d think it was just part of his re-election campaign. Then there was inflation, the economy was in trouble, an unpopular tax surcharge, along with the idea of Bobby Kennedy possibly running against him. He was tired and not well, and I think he just decided he had to give up. For a short time it seemed it was a good thing. I think people respected his decision, but later I think he regretted it, as he had loved being at the center of Washington for so long.

JS: It’s almost unfathomable that a politician today would make that kind of a personal sacrifice. Shifting gears to another president, you once commented that you studied Abraham Lincoln for 20 years, and you could have studied him for another 20 years. What makes Lincoln so fascinating to you?

DKG: Even though some of the other presidents were equally fascinating as president, as a person there’s just something about Lincoln’s personal qualities, like his ability to put past hurts behind him. Like anyone else he had feelings of anger and jealousy, but he somehow was able to tamp those feelings down; he felt that if you allow them to fester they’ll poison you. I think also the combination of his confidence and humility is rare among politicians. And he had an incredible gift for storytelling as a way to bring people around. For me as historian, the most important thing is to be able to tell stories. From the time he was a young lawyer on the circuit in Illinois people would come from miles around to listen to him. He also had a great sense of humor, which allowed him to withstand the great sadness he experienced through his life.

JS: Regarding your book Team of Rivals, and drawing a slight parallel to the work of our members: Very often an independent school’s CFO is the only person who “speaks finance” in a world of education. Are there specific lessons from Team of Rivals that might help our members be more effective leaders?

DKG: Very good question. Besides Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt also really knew how to speak when you want to persuade people of something. He argued that you have to talk to constituents in simple, straightforward language. Once he acknowledged that his Harvard friends might find his language “homely,” but he knew he was reaching them.

I think sometimes there’s a tendency in business to communicate with charts and PowerPoints, and yet the best communicators tell stories and use metaphors to illustrate what they’re talking about.

I think sometimes there’s a tendency in business to communicate with charts and PowerPoints, and yet the best communicators tell stories and use metaphors to illustrate what they’re talking about. When Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand,” that sentence tells you what was happening in the 1850s, that if the North and South divided, our country really could not stand. Or Teddy Roosevelt, when he said he wanted “a square deal” for rich and poor, for wage workers and capitalists. These words just have an emotional ring. I think if people in the financial world, talking in a world of educators, used that common, simple, clear and straightforward language, and ideally told stories, financial issues could really seem more relevant.

JS: Of the American presidents you’ve studied, did any have a particular passion for education, or perhaps even independent education, which is really about providing world-class education that’s not restricted by government standards and regulations?

DKG: I’m not sure about independent education, but certainly Lincoln was involved in the land grant system for colleges. A huge thing that FDR did was the GI Bill of Rights, which brought a whole generation of working class people into higher education who wouldn’t have been there before. And LBJ did so much to ensure quality education for all people, besides signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For instance, he had taught at a small school in Cotulla, Texas—a poor school that had Mexican students. When he signed that act into law he actually signed it at that school.

JS: You have written several books about American presidents. If our members could only read one, which book would you suggest to them and why?

DKG: I think in some ways Team of Rivals has been considered as a business and management book because Lincoln was so successful in building a team around him that could question his assumptions and offer varying opinions. He knew how to acknowledge errors and learn from his mistakes. He knew how to keep close to his constituents, stay on top of what was happening and keep control of the bureaucracy. I didn’t think of it this way when I wrote it, but I think the leadership qualities that were so evident for Lincoln have led a lot of business people to see it as a management book.

JS: Did you enjoy the movie “Lincoln”?

DKG: I loved the movie and got to be a part of it, including accompanying Daniel Day Lewis when he toured Springfield. The whole adventure was fabulous. Now Spielberg has gotten the rights to my most recent book, The Bully Pulpit, on Teddy and Taft.

JS: It’s on my nightstand now. I hope to have finished by the time I see you at the Annual Meeting.

DKG: See you in my hometown in February!

#Culture #Leadership

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