Presidential Leadership During Times of Crisis

How the leadership of four U.S. presidents held the country together during times of crises.

Holley Snaith
Oct 8, 2019 · 8 min read

Leadership, particularly presidential leadership, has been a topic of interest to me for years. I have asked myself: What makes a president a great leader? What kind of leader makes the best president? What did the presidents remembered for being great leaders have that others did not? What life events molded them? I began reading historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Leadership in Turbulent Times just as I was wrapping up a course in my graduate studies on leadership, so the timing could not have been more perfect.

In this book, Goodwin looks at four presidents, the presidents she has researched extensively in her brilliant career, and examines their development into great leaders by asking herself the same questions I posed. Each individual story has its dramatic ups and downs, yet each man was defined by a raw sense of, not only ambition, but a call to do what was right and to be of service to others.

This article briefly summarizes the crises that Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson faced, and explores how they applied traits of different styles of leadership to confront them.

The Transformational Leader: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

“Every man is said to have a peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow man.”

An 1864 oil on canvas painting done by Francis Bicknell Carpenter titled “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation” shows Lincoln with cabinet members. From left to right: Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase, Lincoln, Gideon Welles, Caleb Smith, William Seward, Montgomery Blair, and Edward Bates. Photo courtesy of the United States Senate.

When Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet in July 1862, he informed them that he would listen to their ideas and opinions, but he would not change his mind about what must be done. As a transformational leader, regardless of critics, Lincoln kept his word on delivering this unprecedented Proclamation. In September, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation would be activated by the first day of the new year. As that day approached and the public doubted this would happen, Lincoln and those close to him, including Frederick Douglass, knew that to keep his word was to keep his honor. To Lincoln, honor was everything. Abraham Lincoln put the interest of the whole nation at the forefront, and when it came to the enacting the Emancipation Proclamation, he was taking a moral stand for all generations, past and present. He transformed the minds of many who opposed the historic step and was willing to bend to produce action. When Lincoln signed the Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes down in history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

After Lincoln was elected to a second term, the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, except for punishment for committing a crime) was passed, and Lincoln’s dreams were realized. Just over three months later he was assassinated. His life, the triumphs, the tragedies, accomplishments, and failures, had transformed him and made him a leader like few others, but more importantly, he transformed the lives of millions of others through this act of leadership.

An Example of Crisis Leadership: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great Coal Strike

“When I went into politics. I was not conscious of going in with the purpose to benefit other people but of getting for myself a privilege to which I was entitled in common with other people.”

A newspaper pictorial showing Theodore Roosevelt meeting with union leaders and corporate coal presidents in an attempt to bring an end to the six-month coal strike that affected millions of Americans. Photo courtesy of Muckraker Weekly.

There was no president more bombastic a figure than Theodore Roosevelt. He overcame crippling asthma as a child and led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War; the man relished a good fight. TR’s crisis highlighted in Goodwin’s book is the Great Coal Strike that occurred in 1902 between the United Mine Workers and the strong coalition of railroad chiefs and mine owners who dominated the hard coal production. The decision to intervene in this crippling strike was a difficult conclusion for Roosevelt to come to. He was advised that it would be politically wise for him to stay out of this situation and let management and labor work it out on their own. But as months went by and the problems only mounted, that option was less and less likely and Roosevelt requested his own reports to gather reliable facts of the situation. During that tense summer, TR looked to history for answers, and he found guidance after reading a biography on Lincoln.

Roosevelt waited until public sentiment had grown to the point of exhaustion to speak out on the crisis, and then, with no constitutional duty, decided to act. TR was not the type of man to sit around idly while millions were being impacted by this coal strike. He formed the most competent crisis management team and summoned the union president and presidents of the anthracite coal companies to the White House, making it the first time corporate and union leaders were called to discuss issues in person with the president. After arguments and arbitration, the strike ended after more than 160 days, thanks to the skillful leadership of Theodore Roosevelt. The Great Coal Strike of 1902 marked the beginning of TR’s quest in restraining the corporate wealth that had exploded during the Industrial Revolution; an era of extensive progressive reform was born out of these 6 tumultuous months.

The Turnaround Leader: FDR and His First 100 Days

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration took place on March 4, 1933, marking the beginning of the “First 100 Days.” The 20th Amendment was enforced after this inauguration, stating the president and vice president would be sworn in on January 20th. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt issued a call to action and provided millions of Americans with hope during one of the bleakest times in history. Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine.

Franklin Roosevelt inherited the second worst disaster in this nation’s history when he took the oath of office in March of 1933. It was the Great Depression: banks had collapsed, people were out of their jobs and homes, they could not afford to feed their children, and relief funds were depleted. It was the worst of times. FDR had turned his own life around after being crippled by polio at the age of 39, now it was time for him to do the same for the country. His “New Deal” had a three-step approach that sounds much simpler than it actually was. First, the feeling of panic had to be stopped in order to make any recovery, then, a plan to counter the financial collapse needed to be enacted, and finally, the economic and social structure called for reformation. Although the Depression would not come to an absolute end until the onset of World War II, the First 100 Days set in motion that three-step recovery plan and boosted the morale of the country.

From his motivational inaugural address which squashed fear and reassured Americans of the plentiful resources still available, to his first fireside chat after closing the banks, and through the end of the 100 days in mid-June, FDR proved time and again that he was the leader the country needed. During those couple of months, he persuaded Americans to put their trust back in the banks and created programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration, both of which put millions of Americans to useful work. FDR never took solitary credit for these achievements, he praised the teamwork that had crossed party lines and the cooperation that existed between the legislative and executive branches. FDR was the great communicator, reaching and calming the worries and fears of millions of Americans. By mastering the radio, he was able to convey a common mission, earn the trust of the people, and mobilize them towards a common cause. The connection between the president and the people was what made FDR the quintessential turnaround leader.

A Visionary Leader: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights

“Ambition is an uncomfortable companion. He creates a discontent with present surroundings and achievements: he is never satisfied but always pressing forward.”

Just eight months after unexpectedly becoming president, Lyndon Johnson signs the landmark Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964. Immediately after the death of President John F. Kennedy, Johnson declared in two major speeches his desire to pass the Civil Rights Act in the late president’s honor. He is surrounded by chief legislators and civil rights activists. Photo courtesy of Politico.

Few men had mastered the operations of the legislative process like LBJ had, and from the moment he became president on that horrific November day in 1963, he knew exactly how he was going to use his powers to pass domestic legislation he viewed as crucial. The chief piece of legislation he wanted to see pass was a civil rights act. What better way to attract attention to the issue than delivering a speech at a Joint Session of Congress, and then follow that with a televised address explaining why the late President Kennedy’s domestic agenda needed to be passed and how this would honor his memory. By proclaiming this call to action and voicing to the world that America will move forward, Johnson was emulating his own hero: FDR. The fight to get the civil rights bill passed in the House and Senate was no easy task, even with Johnson’s persuasive stories about the racism African American friends of his had experienced and with his firm statements to Southern senators, particularly Richard Russell, threatening to end political careers if they struck this bill.

Still, Johnson recognized the importance of reaching across the aisle to get Republican votes in order to survive Russell’s filibuster. He told Senator Everett Dirksen from Illinois that if he voted in favor of this bill, his and Lincoln’s name would be the two most memorable from that state. In the final hours before the June 10th vote before the Senate, the president was making phone calls to senators from western states asking for their help and explaining the historical significance. The lobbying paid off and on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His vision did not end there, after a landslide win in 1964 that gave the Democrats control of the House and Senate, he went on and passed a herd of progressive legislation that would become a part of his Great Society. When he signed the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, it had been just over 600 days since Kennedy’s death. Although his legacy would be somewhat tarnished by Vietnam, there is no denying the impact Johnson’s legislation had on millions of Americans, the greatest advancement in civil rights since Lincoln. Johnson had a vision, a plan, and a team, but only certain men such as himself could successfully implement these visions and change the course of American history.


None of these four men were perfect, as history has shown and will continue to show, and some are more revered than others. After I finished the book, I felt optimistic that there are many individuals who do have these styles of leadership in their DNA, and I was encouraged by the fact it is never too late to learn and acquire skills to be an impactful leader. Each of these presidents evolved into strong leaders over the course of their life in public service, and they all offer a source of inspiration to us in this present turbulent time.

To learn more about these presidents, their evolution as leaders, and the turbulent times in which they led, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018), published by Simon & Schuster.

Holley Snaith is an experienced writer and historian who has worked with the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt sites in New York and the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. She has a B.A. in History and an M.S.A. in Public Administration.

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Holley Snaith

Written by

Holley is a historian, writer, and editor striving to inspire others through her writing.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Holley Snaith

Written by

Holley is a historian, writer, and editor striving to inspire others through her writing.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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