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Leadership in turbulent times: A review essay

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Leadership in turbulent times: A review essay

Professor Ladipo Adamolekun

Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018) by Doris Goodwin is a study of leadership crafted around the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969). Goodwin selects one particular incident during each president’s tenure as a case study in leadership and fleshes out four different

leadership types: transformational leadership, crisis leadership, turnaround leadership, and visionary leadership. This review essay is an overview of Goodwin’sdifferent leadership types with an emphasis on the book’s contribution to our understanding of political leadership. And I conclude with a brief commentary on crisis leadership and coronavirus management.

Transformational Leadership

According to Goodwin, Lincoln’s successful handling of the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in USA was a demonstration of transformational leadership. As the American Civil War – the Northern States that were anti-slavery versus the Southern States that were committed to the maintenance of slavery – raged on, Lincoln deftly put the Proclamation as the object of the war.

In answer to “What enabled Lincoln to determine that the time was now right for this fundamental transformation…”

Goodwin provides seventeen enablers of which I consider three as generic, that is, not specific to the prevailing realities of the USA at the time: (i) assume full responsibility for a pivotal decision; (ii) combine transactional and transformational leadership; (iii) put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

Of the three selected enablers highlighted above, it is the combination of transactional and transformational leadership that I consider the most striking asset for a political leader. Goodwin correctly points up the contrast between the pragmatism of transactional leaders in studies on leadership (appeal to the self-interest of followers, bargains and rewards) with transformational leaders who

“inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves (“the organisation… the country… and to the more abstract identification with the ideals of that country”). In addition to specific examples of Lincoln’s transactional strategies, Goodwin stresses how he advocated “emancipation from both transactional and transformational vantage points.”

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Notwithstanding the obvious caveat that the details of a combination of transactional and transformational strategies would vary from one context to another, Goodwin’s demonstration of how Lincoln pulled it off is a significant contribution to our understanding of transformational political leadership.

Crisis Leadership

Out of 19 critical steps identified by Goodwin in T. Roosevelt’s resolution of the Great Coal Strike of 1902 – “groundbreaking crisis management” – five are likely to be applicable in crisis management across cultures and countries.

They are: (i) secure a reliable understanding of the facts, causes, and conditions of the situation; (ii) assemble a crisis management team; (iii) be ready with multiple strategies, prepare for contingent moves; (iv) share credit for the successful resolution; and (v) leave a record behind for the future.

With regard to the resolution of the Great Coal Strike, Goodwin’s account demonstrates that the first two of the five highlighted steps were the most crucial: securing a reliable understanding of the facts…, and assembling a crisis management team.

The composition of Roosevelt’s team is striking: “[He] assembled [them] from both outside and inside his administration… Each of the seven men… had a particular vantage from which to view the strike… He knew who they were, what they knew, and what they knew how to do.”Indeed, I consider the team’s work as the major explanatory factor for Roosevelt’s success in resolving the Great Coal Strike of 1902.

Finally, sharing credit for the successful resolution of a crisis and leaving a record behind for the future are good practices that should be regarded as essential ingredients of crisis leadership.

Turnaround Leadership

By its very nature, a case study of turnaround leadership is more incident-specific than either transformational or crisis leadership. However, some of the steps taken by Franklin Roosevelt to successfully lift America out of the depression of 1933 have lessons for political leaders who might have to tackle turnaround challenges.

I consider four of the sixteen actions highlighted by Goodwin to have varying degrees of applicability across countries and cultures: (i) draw an immediate sharp line of demarcation between what has gone before and what is about to begin; (ii) tell people what they can expect and what is expected of them; (iii) forge a team aligned with action and change;(iv) bring all stakeholders aboard, and (v) Adapt. Be ready to change course quickly when necessary.

From Goodwin’s account, all five steps highlighted above were critical to Roosevelt’s successful turnaround leadership.  While drawing a sharp line of demarcation between what has gone before and what is about to begin is both straightforward and logical, one of Roosevelt’s specific actions stood out – “… he asked the chief justice if, instead of simply saying ‘I do’ …he could repeat every phrase of the presidential oath.”

He did this “to transmit an inspiring readiness to assume responsibility.”By telling the people what they can expect and what is expected of them, he took them into confidence: by the end of his first day in office, “A half-million letters of encouragement and support were on their way to the White House [his residence]”.

Strikingly, Roosevelt was the “patriarch” of his cabinet team, in contrast to the “team of rivals” assembled by Lincoln for the successful handling of the Emancipation Proclamation. Goodwin stresses that the composition of Roosevelt’s “official family” (that is, the cabinet) was by design: “The family team Roosevelt needed must be open to whatever shifts and exigencies the future might bring”.  He selected them “on the basis of loyalty… most of them were friends he had worked with over the years.”

In the circumstances of the turnaround challenges that Roosevelt faced, there is an obvious need for the two remaining steps: bringing all [relevant] stakeholders aboard and readiness to “adapt” and “change course quickly when necessary.”  Goodwin provides fascinating examples of Roosevelt’s adaptability and readiness to “change course quickly when necessary”.

 Visionary Leadership

Although Goodwin highlights getting “Civil Rights” legislation passed as the central incident that demonstrates Lyndon Johnson’s visionary leadership, in reality, the analysis in the book is focused to a considerable extent on the actualization of Johnson’s broad vision of a “Great Society”.

The answer to “How was Johnson able to actualize this vision” comprises eighteen actions. Two were particularly relevant for getting the civil rights legislation passed: (i) rally support around a strategic target and (ii) impose discipline in the ranks. Johnson made the civil rights legislation a strategic target, rallied support around it and imposed discipline in the ranks of his party members in Congress to get the relevant legislation passed – the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson also got the Voting Rights bill passed – the Voting Rights Act, 1965.

It was in respect of Johnson’s vision of a Great Society that two other actions were critical to his success: (i) set forth a compelling picture of the future and (ii) give stakeholders a chance to shape measures from the start.

Johnson’s “progressive vision for America” was “a future in which every person would share in the progress of the country… an enlarged definition of freedom requiring that every American have ‘the opportunity to develop to the best of his talents’”. Members of Congress were the crucial stakeholders that Johnson needed to get the legislation for his Great Society programme passed and he lobbied them to good effect: “During the first ten months of his presidency, Johnson invited every member of Congress to the White House”!

I would argue that variations of a combination of two or more of the four actions highlighted are likely to feature in any discussion of visionary political leadership.

Conclusion: A Brief Commentary on Crisis Leadership and Coronavirus Management.

Although it can be argued that assessing the performance of political leaders in the management of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis currently raging worldwide is premature, it is nevertheless true that there is enough evidence for identifying prospective candidates for crisis leadership among current political leaders across countries and continents.

My shortlist of political leaders who have demonstrated crisis leadership with respect to COVID-19 management to date comprises two national leaders and three leaders at the sub-national level within two federal systems.

The two international leaders are Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and Jacinda Arden, prime minister of New Zealand. The three leaders at the sub-national level are Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State in the American federal system and Governors Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State and Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, both in the Nigerian federal system.

While the choice of the two international leaders is based exclusively on their performance recorded in online news reports, Governor Cuomo’s selection is based on his performance as revealed through his television briefings and interviews and as recorded in online news reports. (I am currently visiting the USA – since early March). In addition to online news reports of the performance of Governors Sanwo-Olu and Fayemi,

I have also relied on reports on their performance provided by my professional and social contacts in Nigeria. I must stress that while Sanwo-Olu is managing the COVID-19 crisis in Lagos State – the epicentre of the crisis in Nigeria, comparable to Governor Cuomo’s responsibility in New York State – Fayemi’s scope covers both Ekiti State and his responsibility for coordinating some of the challenges posed by coronavirus crisis for all the thirty-six subnational governments in Nigeria in his capacity as the chairman of Nigeria’s Governors’ Forum.

Finally, I would like to mention an incontestable non-candidate for crisis leadership: Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro. In April, he fired his health minister after publicly criticising him for urging people to observe social distancing and stay indoors.

And in less than one month, the successor health minister resigned because he disagreed with the president over his plans to open up the economy without any restrictions and over how chloroquine should be used as cure for coronavirus. By late May, Brazil has the world’s second-largest number of COVID-19 cases (over 350,000) and the sixth-highest number of deaths (over 22,000).


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