For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don’t do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer’s tool chest—that is, ourselves.

"Leadership" is one of those topics that seems both ubiquitous and mysterious: Everybody agrees it’s a desirable thing, yet nobody seems really all that clear about what it means or how to provide it. The dictionary definition of leadership (according to Google) is "the action of leading a group of people or an organization" (a tautology if ever there was one); the definition of "lead" is not much clearer: "cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc. while moving forward" or "be a route or means of access to a particular place or in a particular direction."

When quizzed, one of the principal complaints many employees have about their management is a lack of leadership, that these managers know how to manage, but not lead. Clearly, we have higher expectations from people in the upper echelons of the company than just holding a rope while we move forward. So what, exactly, is leadership, and how do we embody it? Or obtain it? Or whatever it is that one does in order to be one of those "good" leaders that everybody desires?

This is not an easy journey to take. It helps, therefore, to examine the journeys made by those who’ve been before to the places we want to go. And one place to look is the great leaders of the past—specifically, for those of us in the United States, at four of the greatest Presidents we’ve had: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. And fortunately for us, we have a great historian, by the name of Doris Kearns Goodwin, to guide us.


Readers who’ve paid attention to the US movie scene the past few years may remember Goodwin’s name as the author of the book "Team of Rivals," which was made into a movie a few years back. Said book was a study of how Abraham Lincoln was able to forge an administration made up of his principal rivals for the office, and how that group of men who were once fiercely contesting one another for the White House collectively guided the United States through its darkest period (our American Civil War, from 1861-1865).

What’s not so well known is that she did deep biographical writeups on each of the other four Presidents mentioned above. Most importantly (to my purposes) she recently released a book, "Leadership: In Turbulent Times," in which she compared the histories of each of the four men and how their experiences—and their reactions to those experiences—shaped their thinking and the approaches that would, ultimately, put each into the position of leading the country through crisis.

For those who aren’t familiar with the backstories of each, allow me to summarize. Abraham Lincoln was the "prairie lawyer" who took office on the eve of the Civil War, shepherded the Union through the war and through numerous generals before finding a "winner" in Ulysses S. Grant, and then shortly after winning re-election on the eve of the War’s end, was assassinated. Teddy Roosevelt (for whom teddy bears are named) was a progressive reformist from New York who was pushed into the role of Vice President to remove him from the reformist stage by his political rivals, who then saw him take office as President when McKinley was assassinated, and bring his reformist and progressive agenda to bear on the nation during an era of strikes and unions. Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) was a distant cousin of Teddy’s and was just beginning a sharp political climb when he was mostly paralyzed from the waist down by polio. He was elected President after the US was crippled by the Great Depression, and then later led the nation through the start of World War Two. Lastly, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was the folksy, popular Congressman and later Senator from Texas who sought to push through a great reformist platform—including that of civil rights—and, like Teddy, ascended to the Presidency when his running mate, John F Kennedy, was assassinated. (It’s important to note that in addition to LBJ’s progressive movement, the Great Society, he also inherited Kennedy’s conflict in Vietnam, and eventually would come to "own" the failure there.)

Broken into three parts, Goodwin’s book details first each man’s early history and run up to success: The adversity of Lincoln’s boyhood and his self-fashioning into a frontier lawyer and Whig political leader, the privilege and warm family love experienced by the two Roosevelts and their surprising entrance into the hurly-burly world of New York state politics, LBJ’s early fascination with retail politics accompanying his father and grandfather in the Texas Hill Country and his quick rise as an ambitious young New Dealer.

She then outlines the "fall" each man had either due to their own hubris or (in FDR’s case) by simple quirk of fate: Lincoln’s failed terms in the Illinois legislature and Congress, including his inability to secure for his state the infrastructure improvements it desperately needed and his failure to secure a desired governmental post after he helped Zachary Taylor win the presidency in 1848; Teddy Roosevelt’s young wife and beloved mother both died on the same day in 1884; FDR was crippled by polio in 1921; and young LBJ lost a razor-thin Senate race in 1941. Each man, heretofore seemingly on an upward climb without pause, suddenly found themselves facing an insurmountable obstacle of either an emotional (depressive) or physical nature. But, as we well know from safety of the future, each man overcame those odds to become the President and—more importantly—use the lessons and resiliency learned from those obstacles to help the country as a whole through its respective struggle during their time, whether establishing much-needed reforms, recovering from crippling economic disaster, or war.

Where does this leave us?


It’s not enough to simply say, "overcome obstacles and you, too, can be a leader." Such sentiment is common among memes and inspirational posters, but if that were all that’s necessary to master a skill, we would all be ready for the world shortly after kindergarten. The how of leadership is what Goodwin is really after, and themes emerge from her analysis quite quickly:

Don’t assume you know everything and don’t pretend to. When Lincoln needed information about the state of the army during the war, he’d go out and talk to the servicemen directly. Teddy was famous for going out in disguise to see how policemen were behaving on the beat. FDR couldn’t travel much, so he sent his wife, Eleanor, out to gather his information for him. LBJ was famous (infamous in some circles) for his "personal touch" when looking to talk to various sources. In each case, the man was willing to admit he didn’t have the necessary information he needed, and rather than wait for it to come to him, he went out to get it. This includes the basic understanding of what the problem is—when the Great Depression hit, FDR’s first steps were to assemble some of the nation’s biggest brains in the financial system to the White House and explain it to him.

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. In the early days of his New Deal program, FDR said, "It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something." It would’ve been easy for each man, faced with a situation that had never been seen before, to wait and see if some solution would present itself. Had they done so, the status quo would never have changed, and the nation would be vastly poorer for it—and still divided (in Lincoln’s case). Take a reasonable shot and see if it works; in the Agile Manifesto, this is the "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools" clause.

Don’t be too busy to think. A recent interview of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, ironically, makes this same point: Being "busy" is the new "clueless." We all of us require time to ingest and process information and situations, and these four presidents were no different; each found a way to get out of the office and give themselves time to think. Get out of the office for a while—personally, I make a point of having lunch outside the building every day, and, in particular, leaving my laptop behind. Nothing is happening at the office that can’t wait an hour. Spend the time contemplating the situation, the people, your biggest concerns, and so on.

Enlist others into the cause. All four men were very good about communicating their vision to the rest of the nation, so that everybody could understand what the fight was about. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that the Civil War was about slavery, first and foremost; FDR’s Fireside Chats began with explanations of why banks were shutting their doors and how the government was going to take a stab at fixing the problem. Your team needs to know the "why" of a particular policy or decision, at least as far as you can explain it, or they will invent reasons for it, and their inventions will never be close to reality.

Don’t look to make this about you. In each case, the President made sure to spread the credit to others, even at the risk of claiming none for himself, yet also to ensure that blame fell nowhere else but on his own head. Lincoln offered his Cabinet the opportunity to write dissenting opinions against the Emancipation Proclamation (none did), and LBJ made it clear to the Republican Senator who was the fulcrum that if he gained bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act, all claim and credit would go to him, not LBJ. Leaders understand that the real victory lies in the success of the effort itself, not the laurels and applause afterwards.

Each man did these things to varying degrees, and in the context of the situation in which he found himself, but each one very clearly followed the same cycle: observe, orient, decide, act. It’s the classic OODA loop, as discussed in "On Decisions," back in this magazine in July/August 2017 (


To be sure, this isn’t some kind of "simple five-step plan" to success; each President had significant other obstacles to overcome that were more than just about leadership. But if you take on the mantle of the manager, and you would prefer to be known as a leader, rather than just a seat-warmer who shuffles reports between the higher-ups and your team(s), you need to start thinking about the nature of the position you’re in and how you can bring your talents to bear. Begin by observation: What needs fixing? Improving? Doing? And then orient your focus to the problem at hand. During your "think" time, do your analysis and make your decision, then carry it out, and analyze the results, preferably without personal bias.

And know that you’re in good company.