Leadership The Eleanor Roosevelt Way – Timeless Strategies From The First Lady of Courage

Posted on October 18, 2010

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Over a year ago when I was visiting my very favorite bookstore (the Upstart Crow, in San Diego’s Seaport Village), I saw a book titled Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. Because I am a fan of Mrs. Roosevelt, I knew I had to grab it, but then something happened and distracted me, and I left the bookstore without the book in hand. One thing led to another, and I never got around to ordering it. So I was truly delighted when I visited again last month and the book was still there!

Part biography, part instruction on leadership in the business context, Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way is an easy and interesting read. The author gives a chronological review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life and draws out the lessons in each stage, which makes for a reasonably effective presentation.

My only quibble with this approach is that Gerber occasionally shifts from the historical recounting to a present-day business example without much warning, calling for closer attention than the book requires otherwise.

The book’s focus, not surprisingly, is on women’s leadership, though many of the lessons transcend gender. Its opening explains that leadership is particularly important to overcome the gender disparities that continue to exist, giving examples from business and politics. Similar inequalities exist in law as well, as indicated in the National Association for Women Lawyers’ Report of the Third Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, which states that among the AmLaw 200, women comprise:

* Fewer than 16% of equity partners;
* 15% of average firm’s highest governing committee (and another 15% of firms have no women on governing committees); and
* 6% of law firm managing partners.

In additional, the study found that male equity partners out-earn female by average of $87,000. While these statistics are limited in scope, they indicate that at least in the firms studied, significant disparity remains. As Gerber wrote,

Although these issues differ somewhat in kind or degree from the problems of Eleanor’s day, the solutions rest on the same foundation: leadership. Why? Leadership is about change. It means intentionally achieving a helpful, ethical purpose, and doing so in a process of reciprocal motivation and support between leaders and those they hope to lead.

Gerber pulls leadership lessons from every stage of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. More extensive in number and in depth, the lessons are nonetheless instructive and likely to provoke readers’ reflection. For example, the following lessons (learned “the hard way”) flow from the painful period in which Mrs. Roosevelt discovered FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer:

1. Respond. Every leader experiences difficult circumstances that she cannot control. The solution, then, is for the leader to learn to control her response. Self-mastery is a key leadership competency because, as Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “the influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.” Leaders must master reactive tendencies and respond to problems instead.

2. Reflect. Upon suffering a blow, a leader must reflect upon the situation and his response. A leader must understand himself thoroughly, including what a crisis means to his sense of self and the sources of strength upon which he can draw.

3. Courage to Change. When a crisis occurs, fear is a natural response. Mrs. Roosevelt’s response is instructive: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing that it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

4. Accept Change and Take Action. Having reflected and gathered sufficient courage, a leader must act. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “People can surmount what seems to be total defeat, difficulties too great to be borne, but it requires a capacity to readjust endlessly to the changing conditions of life.” Leaders must learn to take considered action and move forward, despite setbacks that occur along the way.

What’s in it for lawyers? As the foregoing example indicates, the leadership lessons Gerber offers are often drawn from Mrs. Roosevelt’s writings or speeches. Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way offers many leadership lessons, generally at a somewhat superficial level that introduces a general principle without fleshing it out in depth. As a result, those who are seeking deep discussion of leadership or its practical application may be disappointed. If you enjoy the Roosevelt history, though, and don’t mind a good but topical discussion of its leadership lessons, you’ll likely find benefit from reading Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way.

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