“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre Gide
How does one’s curiosity to visit new places, cultures, and peoples mold leadership character? As an avid travel blogger, I recently sought American Presidential biographies to answer that perplexing question. Focusing on the extraordinary abilities of four U.S. Presidents in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new novel, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”, I learned that early exposures to travel shaped each man’s leadership style for achieving later success as President.
Born to desperate poverty in rural Kentucky, tall and gawky Abe sought refuge in reading books and telling stories. With little to read at home, he would walk for miles seeking something to read. In his one room school, he particularly enjoyed the travel adventures of Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe. When Lincoln turned 21, he set out on his own for New Salem, Illinois, a bustling river town. Here he worked as a general store clerk, land surveyor, and flatboat captain, honing his genius for storytelling and ability to show plain spoken empathy with both friend/foe. Such communicative lessons would soon pay dividends for him as he wandered from town to town performing his duties as an Illinois lawyer and state representative. Clearly, his early adaptability to visit new places/people would impact him later as President in his resolve to heal the deep, sectional divisions about slavery during the American Civil War.
Born as a sickly child afflicted with asthma to a wealthy philanthropist family, Teddy learned quickly that his life success would not come easily. Foregoing the entitlement privileges of his social class status, he sought refuge in nature to help him breathe better and grow physically stronger. Always curious to learn new ideas on his long wanderings, he followed bird calls, collected new bug specimens… while showing no fear of “backwoods” dangers. Such childhood interest to challenge his physical/mental limits in the outdoor world would ultimately inspire him in adulthood to explore ranching in the remote Badlands of North Dakota, game hunting in Sub Saharan Africa, and river captaining in the Malaria- infested jungles of South America. As Teddy had thus boldly ventured into new lands for risky adventure, he would similarly strive boldly with progressive minded ideas to solve big business corruption, labor strike disturbance, and tenement housing poverty as a reform seeking President. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” would thus fittingly become his mainstay slogan in the political arena for the rest of his life.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
As 5th cousin to Teddy, FDR shared the privileged Roosevelt name. Amidst the comforting presence of private tutor education and close family relationships, he experienced a happily contented childhood, at Hyde Park Estate, New York. Having free run to explore his own interests, he often tagged along on outdoor outings with his father, James. When the elder Roosevelt, became incapacitated by a heart attack, FDR began to spend more of his time inside the home. He soon took an intellectual interest in the world around him immersing his mind in new hobbies: reading maps, collecting coin/stamps collections and reading tales of the sea. As Teddy assumed his role as U.S. Presiden during this period, FDR then realized that his activist cousin would be a new role model of strong leadership in his life. Rising to editor of the college newspaper as a student at Harvard University, FDR would then urge students in opinion columns to engage distressed groups and individuals in finding impactful “real life” solutions to solve urban problems. Tragically contracting polio as his political career began to blossom, FDR sought hope for his debilitating condition in the healing power of sun and water. Seeking refuge in mineral water baths of Warm Spring, Georgia, he learned to empathize with the plight of the handicapped there who shared similar afflictions. Becoming America’s longest serving President, FDR’s past travel exposures had taught him some fundamental life lessons. Crisis management for a “New Deal” in our country to end the Great Depression would require a compassionate commitment to pass fair and equitable laws for serving the public will to the best of his abilities.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON
Raised on a small town ranch amidst the prairie frontier of Central Texas, LBJ frequently accompanied his father, State Representative Sam Johnson, in his “barnstorming ” tours throughout the state to secure votes for upcoming Congressional elections. As a precociously inquisitive child, LBJ enjoyed engaging in one-on- one chats with strangers he met then. With his father’s gregarious role model in mind, LBJ thus seemed poised to similarly enter the Texas political arena. Finding little opportunity for such political work during the Great Depression, however, he embarked on a career in education. Moving from the family ranch to become a debate teacher and later principal at impoverished schools along the Texas/ Mexican border would present a formidable challenge for LBJ, while providing ample opportunities for him to refine his powerful leadership skills. In a deeply segregated, mid 20th century America, LBJ would later learn as President to apply his genius for conversational persuasion with Congress to achieve Civil Rights/Voting Rights reform.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TODAY’S PRESIDENCY
America cannot “wall itself in” to solve our country’s immigration problem. The enlightened leadership of four Presidents described in this blog point out that our current executive leader must look beyond his trusting base and suffocating affluence to sell a winning deal for National Security in our country. Tweet less and visit the poor people. If the government shutdown to be safe means for him a test of wills, realize that many Americans (including your followers) now feel unsafe in his indifference. If I were him ,“Don’t Listen to What They Say.Go See” (Chinese Proverb)