Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often referred to by his initials FDR, was an American politician who served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. He won a record four presidential elections and became a central figure in world events during the first half of the 20th century. Roosevelt led the government during the Great Depression, implementing his New Deal domestic agenda in response to one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history. The coalition he built to push through his new deal agenda defined modern liberalism in the United States throughout the middle third of the 20th century. His third and fourth terms were defined by World War II, which ended shortly after he died in office. So, what can we learn from his leadership?

Be bold and act

FDR could never be accused of standing still. His leadership was defined by bold action throughout all 4 terms he served. He understood a key tenant of leadership that many forget. As a leader you are supposed to lead. If you are not leading you are standing still, and things begin to stagnate. He said:

“The country needs — and, unless I mistake its temper — the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Fear of failure often leads to a failure to act. But accepting that a decision may not be perfect is part of being a leader. You are not always going to have the right answers, but that is OK. If the results are not great, then try something else. Indecision is worse than no decision.

Be a pioneer

The New Deal was certainly new, but it wasn’t the only thing that FDR pioneered as president. He was the first president to name a woman to his presidential cabinet when he appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labour. He was the first to name his own vice-presidential candidate. He was the only president to serve more than two terms. He was even the first president to fly on an aeroplane. The first to build and only leader to ever deploy nuclear weapons.

The lesson from this is simple. If you want to achieve what others have not, then you must be prepared to do what others have not. You cannot be tied down by convention and doing what has always been done. If you do what everyone else does, then you will only do what others have done. Be a pioneer, have a vision, have the courage to pursue it, persistence to overcome obstacles, creativity to solve those problems and passion to bring others along with you.

Disability is not a barrier

The final lesson is even more pertinent in an age where we constantly discuss equality and unconscious bias. Many people forget that FDR was to coin a phrase from the time he was around “a cripple.” In 1921 he was struck down with Polio and spent the rest of his life unable to walk. He literally led his country through the Great Depression and World War 2 without the ability to walk. Not only is he regarded as one of the best modern leaders despite this physical disability, but he even established a Polio research foundation that directly led to the Polio vaccines we all use today. 

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