One of the most challenging things about life these days is the ability to choose how we spend our time. Suddenly, the routines that we relied on to navigate our days have been stripped away. We’ve been thrown off the well-rutted trails that helped dictate when to rise, what to wear, how to contribute, and what to do when we need a break. Then the wheels came off the frame. And each day, we choose anew.
Whether we’re on the front lines, or doing our part by staying at home, we’re all trying to navigate the path between anxiety and appreciation as we do what we can to be productive members of the human race. It is against this backdrop that I have been reading Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The book parallels the lives of four U.S. Presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin explores their early development and circumstances each man endured that shaped his leadership style. She refers to those circumstances as crucibles. Lincoln, for example, fell into a depression at the age of 32 that was so profound, his friends confiscated all knives, razors, and scissors from his room in fear that he may take his own life.
As a brash, young Illinois state legislator, Lincoln had convinced the state to invest in massive infrastructure projects like railroads, canals, bridges and roads. These projects were barely half completed when, in 1840, Illinois entered the third year of a recession and halted the work. Land values plummeted, thousands lost their homes, banks and brokerage houses closed. Blame for the crushing debt that crippled the state was laid at Lincoln’s feet.
The burdens that Lincoln had sought to lift from the poorest and most thinly populated communities had been multiplied. The breach of honor he suffered as a result was almost too much for him to bear. “The doctors in Springfield believed that Lincoln was ‘within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life,’” writes Goodwin. Lincoln confessed to his close friend, Joshua Speed, that he was more than willing to die, but that he had done nothing to contribute to the growth of the country.
The Declaration of Independence had been penned just 64 years earlier. Self-government was still considered a shaky experiment, at best, and Lincoln felt that the world’s monarchies were lying in wait for the experiment to fail. Lincoln gathered himself and set about to reconstruct his personal and public life. Not only did he endure, but he went on to lead the country brilliantly through the Civil War, one of the most significant trials in the history of our country.
We have the privilege of living during a collective crucible. Some people will lose their bearings; their lives forever stunted. Others will resume their normal behaviors after a period of time. Still others, through reflection and adaptive capacity, will transcend their ordeal, armed with a greater resolve a purpose. How you will be changed as a result of this crucible depends largely on how you choose to spend your time today.
What leadership book have you turned to for inspiration this month?
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