Leadership in Turbulent Times looked like an epic from the moment I saw it. The cover alone is enough to inspire you to be a better leader. Abraham Lincoln pointing to the heavens as he raises the American flag. I’ve never felt so patriotic, and I’m South African.

I hit an early obstacle though. The book retails for $30 / ~ZAR400. Now, I’m really into investing in myself and I sincerely think the book is worth the money but R400 is a whole date night dinner and, well, I choose love.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times: Goodwin, Doris Kearns: 9781476795928: Amazon.com: Books

Speaking of love, I was walking through a shopping centre one day and came across a Bargain Books sale. I had left my glasses in the car and was squinting heavily so I nearly didn’t enter (sacrilege) but I made the decision to squint through their collection, absorb any embarrassment as character building and attempt to find a book on my Goodreads to-read list at a bargain.

After smelling the spines of all the books they had (because I had to get so close to read the names) I came across three copies of the one and only, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Three copies. I looked around the room at the other people moseying through the bookstore and slowly shook my head. We should be fighting over these books right here like a Black Friday mob but instead the gentleman in the corner was paging through a copy of Vertical Gardening. I have nothing against vertical gardening but we don’t remember the greats of the field (pun intended) for centuries, do we? Get a grip, man.

Anyway for all of R80 I skipped home with my copy of Leadership In Turbulent Times. Covered it (I know, I know). Read it and learned a whole lot. Here are the top 5 things I learned.

1. Suffering breeds success

Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression. Lyndon Johnson suffered from heart problems and had a severe heart attack before even becoming president. Theodore Roosevelt had serious asthma and weak lungs whilst Franklin Roosevelt was paralysed by Polio.

By the time each of these presidents reached the oval office they had endured life altering tragedy in their own way. Of course it’s not in history’s nature to highlight the apparent weaknesses and sad stories of the great men that led the country, but what if the key to their success lay in the character, compassion and strength developed in them as a result of their suffering?

Victor E. Frankl says in his book Man’s Search For Meaning that suffering is meaningless, but the way we respond to suffering is what gives our suffering meaning. The common ground here may be suffering, or it may be that each of these men responded to their situations with a common strength, with perseverance and meaning.

2. Success keeps its own time

When I was a kid I watched an episode of that show on BBC called Undercover Boss. The show followed the CEOs of large organisations who would go undercover and intern at one of their branches to see how their organisations really ran and what their staff really thought of the company. I remember watching one episode about a law firm and the lawyer was a real estate attorney during the subprime mortgage crisis and got stinking rich before the age of 33.

Naturally, as a 12 year old (or thereabouts) I felt I was well equipped to create an expectation on the next 20 years of my life. So, I decided that I too wanted to be a multi-millionaire by the age of 33.

Now while this kind of goal setting can be a really powerful motivator — Brendon Burchard in his book High Performance Habits talks about deadlines being one of four major forces that create motivation — it cultivated in me an unrealistic expectation combined with a 1 and 0 mindset. What I mean by that is I can often be guilty of forgetting that things like success, wealth, even happiness are on a spectrum filled with millions of degrees one way or the other. In my young mind I created a schema that if I wasn’t stinking rich by 33 I would be ruled a failure. As silly as it can sound it took a therapist many years later to ask who created this 33 year old rule and for me to sheepishly realise that it was a 12 year old’s mindset with little understanding of the realities of the world that I was now answering to as a 30 year old. Sounds like an obviously dumb thing to do, but we often tie ourselves to unrealistic expectations whether the source be our childlike dreams, advertising or the stories we’ve heard of other peoples’ success.

I was particularly struck when I read where Abraham Lincoln was in his life at about the same age. When he was 32, Lincoln broke off his engagement with his fiancé, suffered severe depression and became suicidal.

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Here is a man that is one of the most historic figures in America and his life looked to be drifting around a dangerous cul-de-sac at the age of 32. It can be so easy to believe that if, by a certain age, we haven’t achieved big success we are by definition unsuccessful. Success, though, has no time limit. The plan for your life is not beholden to your impatient, childlike ideas of the appropriate age to start winning at life. That’s a tough lesson.

I once wrote a short story about a painter who was facing the concern that perhaps, if he hadn’t yet achieved success, it had actually already eluded him altogether (can I quote myself without being weird?) and I think this captures the immature fear pretty well: “so his failure is not that of having lived a full life and never having succeeded. His failure is one of not yet having achieved the goal. Not yet is not just not yet. Not yet can also be, perhaps never.” 

What I learned from the stories of these presidents is that they didn’t simply toil in their early twenties, achieve success and relish it for a lifetime in a neat character arc we would love to buy into. Their lives were full of successes and failures, valleys and peaks, ups and downs, obstacles and challenges that didn’t care much for what year they were born in. Success mostly came much later in life for them and what was most critical was the way they responded to their yet unmet dreams as younger men.

There’s a whole additional point here about the fact that success is not the presidency or the amount of money in your bank account but we’ll leave that for my review of Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

3. Getting things done is a contact sport

This is where I became a real fan of Lyndon B Johnson and his domestic work.

Before reading this book and the story of how L.B.J. got things done I would have ventured so far as to call myself a productive and effective professional. I’ve got to-do lists, I prioritise ruthlessly, constantly experiment with different deep work structures. I’ve spent weeks gone by tracking my energy, by the hour, and cross referencing that against what I’ve eaten, how many hours slept or whether or not I’ve exercised in order to figure out what the best hours of the day would be for me to do deep work versus administrative tasks and emails. Oh, and my goodness, if I even sniff a project I have a Trello, Asana and Google Draw board set up before you could say “let’s gantt down to business” (I don’t know who says that).

Through all of this focus on productivity, I was missing one big question on a daily, monthly, quarterly and even annual basis, “What did I really accomplish”.

What prompted me further on this was the Doist annual review I did at the end of 2020. To anyone that hasn’t done this at the end of the year I highly recommend it. One of the prompts in that annual review is to think back on the year past and ask yourself:

“What did I work on this year that I’m the most proud of?”

Chances are email isn’t going to feature too heavily. The work we’re naturally really proud of is work that makes a difference. That’s accomplished, valuable work. Not busy work. Structural work that businesses can leverage into the future is one of the most undervalued and success-producing activities people should be contributing to on a daily basis.

In business, we often judge a boss, CEO or ourselves along different criteria like how they are to work for, how smart we think they are or even what they did before running the company we work for. Sometimes, we even like to judge people’s successfulness by how busy they are. As ridiculous as that reads in black and white.

Through reading L.B.J’s story and that of all the Presidents I began to see how a President’s term is judged by finished work, not busy work.

I was struck by how LBJ walked a piece of legislature like it was his beloved puppy all the way through the legislative process. He never sat back once ‘his part was done’ or left ‘the ball in their court’. He walked his bills through every step and, as Doris Kearns Goodwin puts it so elegantly, he ‘used every straw of the broom’.

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So with a renewed focus prioritising work that was important and really getting things done, I began to review how I operated. One of the first things I noticed about my own work and life was that I could very often be passive in getting a project through the pipeline. Shoot off an email, archive the thread and kind of wait a week or two to remember whether or not I’d heard back before shooting off another email, archiving the thread again and placing the next step onus on the other person or people in the project.

I recognised in my own life that I’d largely underutilised my phone, opting to shoot off a quick text or email. It’s amazing how much faster you can get things done: approvals, projects, tasks or requests by picking up the phone and doing it day after day until the ball is rolling. From day one to day one hundred of your plan the ball is in your court. That’s powerful to remember.

4 . You’ve got to fill their cups

This principle is in no way new or groundbreaking, but it was a good reminder of how important it is to keep in touch with the soldiers on the front line of your business, project or, if you happen to be the leader of a nation and spend your free time reading my blog, your country.

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Lincoln was asking a lot of his soldiers during the civil war. One thing that stood out for me was how keenly aware he was that he had to fill their cups. Oftentimes there can be a severe detachment between those being asked to carry out orders (be it in war, work or family) and those leading the team. The result of which is an increasing chasm between those executing the mission and those crafting it. The outcome of this type of chasm can be as big as mutiny or as small as orders being carried out with an energy of duty rather than passion. Whichever it turns out being, the outcomes are negative.

If you’re buckled in by this stage I’d like to take a really hard segway for a moment. This story of Lincoln reminds me of quite a lot of a great book I read called The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Something he talks about in relationships is that often in our marriages, friendships or other relationships we ask things of our partners, place quiet requests or demands on them, which in effect withdraws from their ‘cup’. Withdraws from their their emotional capacity or energy.

We’re naturally aware of and can become quite skilful at doing this. What we’re less equipped with though is a solid understanding of how to fill the cup of that person in a way that’s meaningful to them. Everyone’s had that experience of a friend that just seems to take, take, take, ask, ask, ask but never really invests in your life in ways that are meaningful to you — be it with time, kindness or generosity.

At the time of reading The 5 Love Languages I applied the principles wholeheartedly to my personal relationships, but never really thought about the applicability of this principle to professional ones, or to the relationship between myself and my team.

In a position of leadership you’re naturally doing a lot of asking of your team. Lincoln seemed so keenly aware of this in his visits to the soldiers. The most poignant line for me in that quote was “‘He cares for us,’ one soldier said to another, ‘he makes us fight, but he cares’”. Now, the soldier isn’t denying the fact that Lincoln is asking a lot of the soldiers. He doesn’t deny that in some ways he doesn’t like or enjoy or maybe even agree with what Lincoln is asking of them — the ways in which Lincoln is emptying their cups. But there is a very big ‘but’ in that soldier’s sentence; “but he cares”. That but is a rebuttal, a counter weight in the mind of the soldier. It’s a sign that Lincoln was filling the cups of his soldiers face to face. He was figuratively and literally filling their cups, because he realised the importance of that counterbalance to his withdrawals.

In a professional context where people are being compensated and not risking their lives for the company it can be tempting to not apply the same rules. The reality is though that compensation doesn’t fill everyone’s cups. Your role as a leader is not just to make sure people get paid on time, but to make sure that your withdrawals from people’s energy and time are balanced with your investments into them.

5. Lead with Vision

One of the most impactful case studies of leadership that I found in this book was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 100 Day Plan at the outset of his Presidency during The Great Depression.

When Roosevelt came into power in 1933 the country was in the midst of a banking crisis with a quarter of its citizens unemployed and widespread panic about the future of the country. Many Americans had lost hope in the future of their country. This is a mindset that many people carry today in regards to their belief about the future of the companies they work for during Covid-19, their countries or even the prospects, hopes and meaning in their own lives.

Whilst many might believe that it was clever policy alone that spurred America’s recovery, Roosevelt realised that something much less tangible lay at the heart of the recovery of the American economy: belief.

Roosevelt knew that he needed to paint a vision of the future of a prosperous America that people could believe in again. In Roosevelt’s words:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.”

What Roosevelt proved through the way he inspired Americans to believe in a prosperous future is the self heightening cycle of vision.

Creating a believable, simple and powerful vision of the future forges belief. Belief in turn fuels action. Actions, day after day, create the futures we strive for. Often times we ask a lot of our teams, our peers or our families and those that have to carry out the tasks, projects or chores on a day to day basis are left wondering what they are even working towards. What the meaning of their labour is. This is sure to lead to clock-in-clock-out mentality. Once those that you lead can understand the context of their efforts. The meaning behind their actions begins to propel the team forward towards a vision that everyone collectively believes in. That’s when you have superhuman effort and self fulfilling prophecies.

Roosevelt knew that he needed to spark this self fulfilling prophecy through his actions and his words.

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