By Casey Gale
Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to surround himself with his rivals, and to admit his own weaknesses were just two of the rare traits that made him a great leader, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told a Rider audience marking the start of the university’s sesquicentennial.
“One of the best indicators of a leader is the ability to motivate one’s self in the face of frustration, to withstand adversity and come through trails of fire which we all do in our personal lives,” said Goodwin. “He possessed an unusual determination to rise beyond adverse circumstances.”
The SRC was filled to the brim on the evening of Sept. 16 when over 1,000 students, alumni and staff came out to hear the acclaimed presidential historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author speak about Abraham Lincoln’s leadership.
Author of the award-winning book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which inspired the 2012 film Lincoln, Goodwin addressed the era during which Rider was founded – the end of the Civil War. Her speech kicked off Rider’s 150th anniversary celebrations, which will continue throughout the year.
“Obviously, the beginnings of a lot of the Industrial Revolution take place during the Civil War,” she said in an interview before the event. “You’ve got the iron manufacturing plants in Trenton and the railroad in Trenton, and people moving from farms to cities during the Civil War in order to deal with the home front mobilization as part of a more general move from farms to cities. Immigrants were coming into the cities, not into the farms. And so the need for office workers, and the need for people learning the skills of business to deal with all these growing jobs in the city, created the forerunner of Rider.”
After dedicating her life to studying leaders, Goodwin stressed that programs like Rider’s Leadership Development Program are key to building leaders from scratch.
“You’ve got to believe that leadership is not simply born, it’s made,” she said. “You can develop leaders. And I know you have a center for developing leadership, and I think that’s really important. If we believe they’re just born, then only certain people are destined to be leaders.
“I think some qualities are inborn – maybe it’s vitality or energy or liking people. But there are other things you can certainly learn from over time,” said Goodwin.
Such leaders, of course, include President Lincoln, a man who she said provided a model for not just how to be a good leader, but a good person.
“In the 10 years that I was working on [my book] I felt that you could almost be a better person if you followed Lincoln,” said Goodwin. “It’s not that he didn’t feel the normal human emotions of envy or jealousy or anger or retaliation, but he knew that if you allowed those emotions to fester inside of you, it poisons you.
“So he was just sort of able to damp them down. I don’t know how. There were times when you’d see him be kind to somebody who had hurt him so much before. It was good for him to be kind to the person then, so it was practical, but also he really was able to let the past be the past. I remember thinking this would be something for all of us to learn in life.”
The qualities that Lincoln possessed can be applied in situations big and small, according to Goodwin.
“Always look at the leaders that have been successful in the past; we can learn from them,” she said. You have to believe that, whether you’re a leader in a small organization or a large organization, there are certain kinds of common traits that successful leaders share – whether it’s the ability to get through adversity, or to communicate well with the people, or to stay close to public sentiment – and just to see or bring people on their team that can criticize them and not get angry with them, and to have a certain emotional intelligence.”
According to Kristine Brown, media relations director, the event drew in one of the largest crowds in the school’s history. One member of the Rider community who was excited for Goodwin’s visit was Robert Congleton, a librarian, archivist and Rider historian. He said he was impressed with her historical expertise.
“I’m excited. I’ve read her Lincoln stories and I’ve seen her do the Civil War documentary with Ken Burns. I’ve seen her do other talk shows and news shows. She shows that you can do history without having to associate with it at an institution.”
Goodwin did not attribute the audience size to her work, but rather to the appreciation small schools like Rider have for visitors.
“You don’t take as much for granted. I think it’s a great tribute to a student body that they would come out for something. I think sometimes people get spoiled in these larger universities. There’s so much going on that I think they say ‘Oh, I can see that guy next year.’”
Goodwin’s address served as a kickoff for Rider’s 150th anniversary celebrations which will continue throughout the year.
The night concluded with a presentation of sesquicentennial excellence medals awarded to the Times of Trenton and Dr. Walter Brower. The medals are awarded to members of the Rider community who brought honor and substantial greatness through hard work and dedication.