With the election around the corner, it is only appropriate to look to the great presidents of our history for the lessons their lives can teach us. One of the first presidents that comes to mind as an exceptional leader is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Roosevelt has been consistently rated in the top three most successful presidents in the history of the United States in scholar surveys conducted by institutions from Harvard to C-SPAN. The only president to serve more than two terms, FDR led the nation through two of its most challenging crises: the Great Depression and World War II.
As a teenager, Roosevelt was highly influenced by his school’s headmaster, who emphasized that the privileged classes owed a duty of service to society. Roosevelt took that to heart and began his service in political office as an adult. In 1921, Roosevelt faced his greatest personal challenge when he contracted polio and was left a paraplegic. However, because of the people Roosevelt surrounded himself with, most notably his wife, Eleanor, he fought off despair. Eleanor played a major role in his life, believing Franklin was destined for greatness, and deemed it essential to his well being and the nation that he did not abandon his political career. In 1933, we find Roosevelt inaugurated and over 15 million Americans unemployed. Though widespread fear and panic abounded throughout the nation, Roosevelt entered office projecting an image of realistic confidence and optimism, stating perhaps his most famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He went to work quickly, creating the New Deal, which provided quick relief and long term hope.
As a wartime president, it is a little known fact that FDR set up a milestone in civil rights: The Fair Employment Practices Committee, to prevent discrimination in defense-related employment. Many of his decisions were highly criticized during the war, such as abandoning previous reforms by bringing business leaders into policy decisions in the name of putting the American industry onto war footing; however, Roosevelt accepted all responsibility and made the necessary decisions that ultimately resulted in victory. Most notably, he refused to become a wartime dictator. Instead of assigning a production “czar,” he harnessed the powers of capitalism, assuming competition combined with a common zeal to win the war would produce the best results. The people of the United States had such great confidence in Roosevelt that he was elected to a fourth term.
Here is what can be learned from this brief overview of Roosevelt’s presidential career:
- Confidence and an optimistic state of mind is the first step toward successful leadership. They are infectious.
- Abandon your discriminations. To lead others requires understanding others. To understand others requires imagination and a willingness to leave behind comfortable assumptions.
- Act decisively when action is called for. Often, a good solution now is far better than a perfect solution later.
- Communicate. Create a common cause by defining your goals and values clearly.
- Build a team of the best people available to you.
- Foster creative competition toward a common goal among those you lead.
- Keep your plans flexible.
Leadership is a sacrifice.