Leadership Lessons from ... Eleanor Roosevelt

How would the first lady manage during today's troubled economic times?

Years before she helped Franklin D. Roosevelt win four presidential campaigns and became "reluctant First Lady" in the 1930s and 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt was an outspoken social reformer. Her legacy includes fighting for women's, civil and human rights in the U.S. and, via the fledgling United Nations, the world. J. Edgar Hoover considered her dangerous; the FBI file on Roosevelt is one of its thickest.

Roosevelt prided herself on a forthright and compassionate management style-one that, in these trying economic times, would likely advance not only her career but those of her staff. We asked Allida Black, director and editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and a research professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, to imagine how Roosevelt might manage today.

Question: As a senior executive, how would you lay off staff?

Answer: With great sadness. I would have done all I could to keep people employed. I'll have discussions with each individual to explain the downsizing. I'll help them secure additional work by writing letters of reference and making phone calls. I appreciate the loss of friendships and the pressure it puts on employees to do more work with less staff. I would not expect staff to do anything I wouldn't do myself.

Question: What do you do when you disagree with the CEO's plans?

Answer: In a board or staff meeting, I would speak up. If it was a public announcement, I would not leap to criticize publicly. I would go to the CEO and say, 'We need to think about this. I disagree and here's why.' Depending on how significant the disagreement was, I might go public. I have done this with major corporations, labor groups, the U.N., with Truman and FDR. If the disagreement was over a fundamental value where, when I did a gut check, I couldn't go there, I'd resign. I resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution over Marion Anderson. I'm not shy about making my opinion known but I always go to the person first.

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