It has been nearly 80 years since Franklin Roosevelt won his first of four presidential elections, launching his wife, Eleanor, onto the national political stage. Eleanor used her position to build a powerbase from which she not only rewrote the traditional role of first lady, but also rewrote history. By capitalizing on the naturally feminine of characteristics of nurturing and inclusiveness, too often dismissed as “weak” in male-dominated circles, Eleanor pulled together coalitions that gave voice to society’s most disenfranchised members–minorities, women and the poor–and led sweeping political and social reforms that continue to shape our world.
In her book, Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, author and consultant Robin Gerber explores the tactics and strategies Eleanor Roosevelt used to effect tremendous change. Along the way, she provides clear direction on how women today can apply those same tactics to meet their own personal and professional goals.
What makes Eleanor Roosevelt’s story still relevant to women today?
It’s relevant because she faced the same kinds of challenges women are still facing, such as trying to do things that were not really considered acceptable for women to do. Women today are still fighting sexism in the workplace. They understand trying to accomplish something and having their paths blocked. Eleanor Roosevelt showed such perseverance in the face of those obstacles that her success is still a model for today.
Using communication, interpersonal relationships, taking risks–all hallmarks of leadership today–she found her way around those obstacles. She also figured out how to handle criticism, which is something most women still have difficulty with.
How did she shape the way that women are perceived in politics and business?
Primarily, she reshaped the idea of first lady, which is arguably a political job. Just as we’ve seen with Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, women are still hitting roadblocks when they try to move into areas that are dominated by men.
How did she shape women’s perspectives of themselves?
As women read my book, I think it really resonates with them because she had such a difficult young life. She had a very sad childhood. She was not particularly loved by her mother. Her father was an alcoholic who died quite young. Then she had to deal with Franklin’s infidelity. Her ability to rise above all of that and still be a positive and powerful person really gives women hope, and it changes their perceptions of themselves. They think, “If Eleanor Roosevelt can do this, what can I do?”
What are the key strategies that she used to build her powerbase?
I think her most effective strategy was communication, both oral and written, and her strength was going out and meeting people face to face. I always advise women to get out of the office. Communication was key for her.
She also built great networks and relied on people to give her advice from every corner. She had networks that reached into the black community, into the women’s community, into poor, rural communities. She was always reaching out, and always inclusive. People who met her routinely said that they immediately felt like they knew her.
How can women adapt those strategies to address core issues in the workplace today?