Influence others like Eleanor Roosevelt
March 18, 2020
What does an American First Lady who died in 1962 have to do with leadership in 2020? She was never elected to public office. Yet she was the most well-known woman in America for years. She was both loved and vilified. Eleanor Roosevelt faced challenges and shows us today ways to step up to leadership in anxious and difficult times.
She is one of my heroes. She survived a difficult childhood, a challenging marriage to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the many restrictions on what women could and couldn’t do during her lifetime. She was cripplingly shy, yet became the most well-known woman in America. She was a visible First Lady from 1933-1945. During and after that time she spoke publicly, wrote a column and books, and played a key role in the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations (1945-1952). Eleanor Roosevelt’s story is compelling. And her own words and example are inspirational and challenging.
Here are three ways that we can lead as she did, with her own words to reinforce them.
- Face up to difficult tasks. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”[i]
Leaders must speak and act in ways that are frightening and difficult. It may be standing up to a bullying staff person or church member or making a public statement about a controversial issue. Sometimes it’s just getting out of bed and going to work when you are discouraged and exhausted. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
- Immunize yourself to criticism. No doubt the pace of vicious criticism has accelerated in our day. But Eleanor Roosevelt faced her share of it, both before and after her husband’s death. Many people thought she was too bold (perhaps including her own husband). They tried to put her in her place. In this regard, she said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”[ii]
To lead is to invite criticism, condescension and worse. It requires a strong sense of self to handle the barrage that can come your way when you lead, and to hold on to your clarity about who you are and what you are called to do.
- Act according to your principles. “In political life I have never felt that anything really mattered but the satisfaction of knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed, and had done the best you could.”[iii] She also said, “If silence seems to give approval, then remaining silent is cowardly.”[iv]
Here’s one example: The African American singer Marian Anderson was refused the right to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in protest. She worked behind the scenes to see that a massive outdoor concert took place instead.[v]
In politics, at church, in our wider world, there are no guaranteed outcomes. Be clear about your principles and assess your actions in their light (sometimes with the help of others). Then do what you can and let go of the rest.