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Eleanor Roosevelt - a Life of Leadership

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The legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt is essentially contested. To many, her role as First Lady, delegate to the UN, Democratic Party member, humanitarian and social activist immortalized her as "the conscience of the nation". However critics - deriding her as a "gadfly" and an "unfit woman" - cite many flaws in her leadership capacity. Roosevelt was never elected to office. She was reluctant to assume the responsibilities of being the First Lady. Unlike Lincoln or King no single 'great' speech defined her vision, passion or ideology. In effect, the success of Roosevelt is merely the result of a privileged background and simply being 'in the right place, at the right time'. This conflict formed the starting point of our research.

In June 2002 the Eleanor Roosevelt Learning Team met with Senator Hillary Clinton. Motivated by the above debate we asked what it was that made Roosevelt stand out amongst other great leaders of the US. Senator Clinton expounded a convincing hypothesis, arguing that Roosevelt was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century history with a life spanning some of the most dramatic and challenging events in modern history e.g. the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the civil rights movements.

Senator Clinton argued that Roosevelt's achievements were numerous. For example, as America's longest serving First Lady she re-defined the office and worked tirelessly in the interests of US people starved of opportunity and equality such as underprivileged children, coal miners, African Americans. As Chair of the UN Committee III she extended her compassion and interest in human rights by playing a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps her greatest and most enduring achievement.

What Senator Clinton stressed most however was the unique nature of Roosevelt's leadership style and skill. Throughout her life Roosevelt held a deep commitment to the principle of citizenship; she led by the people and with the people. Steadfast in her commitment to America, democracy, and a world that honored human rights, she told Americans across the Nation, "We are on trial to show what democracy means." Throughout her life Roosevelt opted to act on this motto. Her last printed words read "Staying aloof is not an option, but an act of cowardice".

Senator Clinton's hypothesis that Roosevelt's leadership style was based on a principle of citizenship, emerged as the focus point of our research: In this capacity her achievements were numerous and her influence all-pervading. But how was this achieved? To answer this question The Eleanor Roosevelt Learning Team decided to proceed with our research using primary resources. Continuing from our interview with Senator Clinton, we solicited the advice of leading Roosevelt scholars: Prof. Robin Gerber (Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland), Dr. Allida Black (George Washington University) and Vern Newton (Former Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library).

From our research what quickly emerged was that to understand the leadership capacity of Eleanor Roosevelt one has to understand her personal circumstances, personality and family background. As a result our research work focused on the characteristics driving the brilliance that is Eleanor Roosevelt. Drawing from lengthy interviews with the Roosevelt scholars three characteristics emerged (i) her transformation ii) her courage iii) her ability to break beyond expectations.

The chapter proceeds as follows. It begins by providing biographical information on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Then each characteristic is fully dissected with an emphasis on how it relates to Roosevelt's leadership.

"...some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

Twelfth Night


It is very easy to take for granted that a leader, an individual who has at any time held a position of power, somebody who has spent time in the public eye, a public figure who has fought for principles and pressed for change has led a life that was a world apart from mine or yours. It is easy to presume that that person is in the position they are in because of money, connections or an extraordinary intellect. We may suppose that any adversity or problems that this type of person has encountered are on another level to those that we face. Perhaps we don't imagine that there were private obstacles to overcome, personality traits that needed adjustment or adaptation, that private insecurities or personal failings had to be surmounted. It is simplest to assume that the role of leadership was cut out for him/her alone. More often than not, one imagines that the "leader" in an individual emerges early on in life, apparent from an early age: a bright child with above average intelligence, active in all walks of life, successful in anything that he puts his/her hand to, popular with peers and admired by elders. But nothing is that simple.

Take Eleanor Roosevelt:

Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a rich elitist family. Her life was blessed with plenty, and she was brought up on a diet of French maids, German maids and governesses. Her wealthy extended family assured her the privilege of lavish living arrangements, she was brought on frequent visits to the theater, she had libraries of books at her disposal and was given the chance to travel the world. The circumstances of her privileged yet very dysfunctional childhood left her wanting for nothing but the intangible: love, affection, praise and recognition.

Juxtaposed against her mother, a beautiful socialite, she was a plain child with a lackluster personality. Her mother was ashamed of this facet of her daughter's person and Eleanor was brought up being very conscious of her looks and her lack of manners. She had an unhealthy obsession with her looks and it is



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