Historical Reflections on Leading in Turbulent Times


Message from the Editor:

It is a huge privilege, and to be honest incredibly humbling, to be able to introduce this latest blog from longstanding member of the BELMAS “family,” Ron Glatter. Ron offers a very timely thought-piece on leadership in turbulent times and I particularly love the conceptualisation of leadership as artistry. He draws on his reading of Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times which offers a historical review of political – in this case US presidential – leadership. Ron’s blog offers up a range of themes which might just find resonance for educational leaders in present times. So, grab yourself a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable because this is a gem! If you’d like to comment on Ron’s blog or any other BELMAS blogs, then please use the hashtag #BELMASblog.

 - Suzanne


Author: Ron Glatter

Are you practising ‘leadership in turbulent times’?  If so, you may be looking for a primer to help you through it.  Well, I picked up a recent book with that very title: Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Penguin, 2019) but it’s not exactly a primer.  It’s a set of case studies from the careers of four of the more notable presidents in U.S. history – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. 

It was written not by a specialist in leadership but by a distinguished historian who had already produced complete books on each of her presidential subjects, for one of which she won the Pulitzer Prize.  She first reviewed some of the literature on leadership, a longish list including Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Michael Fullan and (yes) Alex Ferguson. She concluded that as she looked at these presidents through the lens of leadership it felt as if she was meeting them anew.

This raises the question of how much can a study of political leadership at the highest level assist us in refining our practice of professional leadership in a field such as education?  On this evidence it can at least illuminate core themes.  Intriguingly, Lyndon Johnson’s first position of authority was as principal of a six-teacher elementary school in an impoverished Texan town close to the border with Mexico.  Goodwin hopes that what she calls “these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear”, such as the American Civil War, the Great Depression and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, can give us “a better perspective on the discord of our times”.

I’m no historian so I can’t comment on the soundness of Goodwin’s judgements: this is not a review of the book.  I can only highlight a few themes that seemed to me to resonate in the current period of major disruption created by a public health crisis.  Five themes, arguably neglected by leadership analysts, stood out for me. 


The first concerns ambition, which is not a topic often discussed in academic treatises on leadership: perhaps it’s thought not sweet-smelling enough.  But of course anyone aiming for the heights of political power is bound to be ambitious, as also are most people seeking leadership responsibility in education.  On the book’s evidence, ambition alone isn’t enough for solid accomplishment: there must be a strong sense of purpose too, and clear convictions effectively communicated: what Goodwin calls “the doubleness of ambition”.  It is said that Lincoln warned of the “troublesome ambition” of leaders with towering egos.

Leadership as artistry?

Purpose and conviction shouldn’t be taken to imply inflexibility.  For Franklin Roosevelt, according to Goodwin, nothing was set in stone: decision-making was a living process.  She quotes him as saying “We have to do the best we know how to do at the moment.  If it doesn’t work out, we can modify it as we go along”.  This notion of what I would call provisionality seems important, especially in testing times such as the present. 

The implications for leadership style are worth contemplating.  Roosevelt is described in the book as “an artist of the turnaround” with a “penchant for improvisation, alteration and modification”.  The idea that leadership is a form of artistry and demands improvisational skills isn’t much developed in the literature.  It’s interesting that a historian rather than a leadership analyst is putting this forward here, and in fact she indicates she has derived it from a playwright, Robert Sherwood.

Problem-solving intelligence

Close to this and related to the notion of provisionality is the requirement for problem-solving abilities in leadership.  That is more frequently recognised but is too often seen as a low-level skill.  According to Goodwin it is another ‘art’ that Franklin Roosevelt practised to great effect.  She says he didn’t have an academic-style analytical intellect but “possessed an incredibly shrewd, complicated, problem-solving intelligence” and an “intuitive touch”.

The potential significance of this was reinforced for me by a TV clip on the occasion of the recent death of the highly regarded British politician John Hume, who played a key role in setting up the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.  The clip showed him saying, referring to politicians, “We’re here to solve problems, not just to win seats”.  That can be translated to the domain of educational leadership.


Excuse me?  That’s not a word we have come across very often in leadership writings is it - too personal perhaps?  Arguably it comes to the fore particularly in turbulent times such as the present when everything seems so uncertain.  All these presidents had major and often profound setbacks, whether of family, personal health or career before reaching the pinnacle, and sometimes after that too.  The term resilience has recently become fashionable and Goodwin uses it to denote how these individuals responded to their watershed experiences, how they eventually put themselves back together and how the adversity they had suffered helped shape their leadership.

There are also indications in the book of how not to behave.  Theodore advised against bluster or quarrelling, while for Franklin we are told “Comfort did not reside in bombast”.  He is quoted as saying “We cannot ballyhoo ourselves back to prosperity”.  Such cautionary and perhaps necessary nostrums rarely appear in leadership texts.

Leaders and their times

Goodwin argues that all four of her chosen presidents followed predecessors who had been unable to deal adequately with a major developing challenge of their time: “One leader’s skills, strengths and style may be suited for the times; those of another, less so”.  It is a reminder of how closely connected leadership capability is to context.  How well suited, we may ask, are many of today’s school leaders in England to the current competitive, market-driven and corporate culture?

This book seems to me to offer rich material for reflection about leadership behaviour rather than specific hard-edged ‘lessons’.  A good example is Theodore Roosevelt’s view that Lincoln’s character provided him with a powerful model: “to try to be good-natured and forbearing and to free myself from vindictiveness”.

Ron Glatter is the Immediate Past President of BELMAS and recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award. He became the Society's founding Honorary Secretary in 1971. He is Emeritus Professor of Educational Administration and Management at the U.K.’s Open University, where he was a Professor and Director of the Centre for Educational Policy and Management for many years. 

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