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An Evaluation of Leadership Practice of Franklin D. Roosevelt

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“A Leader is summoned to the fore by the needs of the time” – Doris Jean Kearns, FDR.

We stand today at a time of change and challenge, in an age of technological advancement and destructive ignorance. At a time when humanity faces its greatest and most complex challenges, we are unfortunate to have a dearth of leadership. Competence has become a rare commodity among the world’s most prominent leaders, with value being placed on the appearance of competence and success rather than on actual substance.

Now more than ever Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) leadership practice is important because he represents a leader who had the rare combination of inspiration, selflessness and grit, a naturally charismatic, ambitious individual who was transformed through personal struggle into a fearless, intellectual heavyweight. “Indeed, if ever an argument can be made for the conclusive importance of the character and intelligence of the leader in fraught times, at home and abroad, it will come to rest on the broad shoulders of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” (Kearns).

In his inaugural address as President of the Unites States of America on January 20th, 1937, FDR stated: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little”. FDR managed to achieve the true alchemy of public service, by creating the environment for sustained economic growth coupled with enshrined social equality. An evaluation of his leadership practice bears fruit for me personally through an understanding of how he implemented the leadership theories/models listed below to achieve the above alchemy but also for the Fine Gael organization.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945) was an American politician who served as the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. A member of the Democratic Party, he won a record four presidential elections and became a central figure in world events during the first half of the 20th century. As a dominant leader of his party, he built the New Deal Coalition, which realigned American politics into the Fifth Party System and defined American liberalism throughout the middle third of the 20th century. At this critical juncture in Irish politics, following the three change elections of 2011, 2016 and 2020 (Pat Leahy), a transformational leader at the helm of Fine Gael has the opportunity to build a New Gaelic Coalition and realign Irish Centrist philosophy, the dominant force in Irish politics, forever. FDR was at the helm of the US federal government during the majority of the Great Depression, ‘Doctor’ Roosevelt put forward his New Deal reforms to tackle the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. While his first and second terms, concentrated mostly on the domestic agenda, his third and fourth terms were dominated by World War II, which ended shortly with Allied victory. Shortly after he died in office. He is rated by scholars as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Throughout the course of my evaluation of FDR’s leadership practice, I will show:

  1. That FDR possessed inherent leadership traits, that were brought to the fore when confronted with the appropriate challenge, i.e. the Great Depression;
  2. That in response to this challenge FDR laid out a vision for a new politic in America (The New Deal);
  3. Once FDR had laid out his vision, he set about bringing this transformation to fruition through implementation of the New Deal.

Historical views on leadership maintained that it “was a set of qualities or personal characteristics (i.e. traits) that someone was born with” (Ref, Fellenz et al., Book). This takes on leadership originated from the “great man view of leadership which suggested that in every situation, particularly in times of crisis, ‘great men’ would emerge to lead though the difficulties” (Fellenz et al.). Hardy in 1993 suggested that by 1950 there had been over 100 studies that had attempted identify appropriate traits. However, there was very little agreement about actual traits, with only about 5% being common and little evidence to support the key contentions about these traits (Fellenz et al.). Norton in his 2016 book: ‘Leadership: Theory and Practice’, identified the 6 most common traits found in most studies, namely: intelligence, self-confidence, determination in pursuit of goals, drive, integrity and willingness to take responsibility and sociability (Norton, 2016).

Contemporary leadership trait research focuses less on direct effects of individual traits and more on constellations of traits, interactions between traits and situational characteristics, and the implication of traits on skills and behaviors that affect leadership (Dinh and Lord, 2012; Judge and Long, 2012; Ng et al., 2008). Those traits found to have some direct (proximal) and or remove (distal) association with successful leadership in large organizations include (e.g. Yukl, 2010; Zaccaro, 2007).

It is clear from thorough analysis of FDR that he possessed many of the essential traits Norton identified and that he exemplified trait-based leadership when applied to appropriate situational conditions, i.e. the Great Depression. His deep well of self-confidence stemmed from his wealthy upbringing in Hyde Park, New York and a doting mother. It was there that FDR first embodied the belief that he was at the centre of the world and was born to lead. This would aid him in his ascendancy to the Presidency and his believe that he could solve the problems the nation faced in 1933, “(FDR) promised that he and the Democrats would become prophets of a new order” (Dallek). However, it would be this self-confidence that would turn to over-confidence when FDR faced criticism for his consolidation of power into the Executive via the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 (ref.), frequently called the court-packing bill and the Reorganization Act of 1939, which subsequently created the Executive Office of the President, making it ‘the nerve center of the federal administrative system’. Critics of these acts complain that the influence and expertise of the Cabinet subsequently began to wane and that policymaking was hidden behind executive privilege. Power must always be balanced with service and fundamental structures never disturbed.

Evidence of FDR’s deep intelligence was clear early on, his attendance at Harvard cultivated this sound intellect. He won election to the New York State Senate in 1910, and then served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Roosevelt was James M. Cox’s running mate on the Democratic Party’s 1920 national ticket, however Cox was unsuccessful (Dallek). However, in 1922, FDR’s political career was derailed by illness. In August 1921, he diagnosed with poliomyelitis at the time. This however did not dampen his drive and ambition to reach the uppermost echelon of political life & become President of the United States. He relearned to walk and successfully returned to politics in 1929, becoming Governor of New York. “Only fourteen-pound braces on each of his lower limbs and the use of crutches enabled him to walk unassisted, and mastering these would require substantial practice” (Dallek, Pg. 92).

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It is my contention that FDR indeed had innate talent and traits suited to leadership, however I am the firm belief that his personal struggles and focused hard work helped bring those talents to fruition in response to the immense challenge of the Great Depression. This I take as a clear lesson for myself, given that I too have political aspirations for the highest office, that only through focused practice and application of my talents can I optimize their benefit in the political domain. “Yet, the picture of Roosevelt as a prodigy, a natural, a purely instinctive leader belies the long periods of hard thought and preparation that went into everything he said or did” (Kearns/Dallek). FDR had the ambition and intellect to be a leader, but recovering from polio and returning to politics gave him the grit and humility required to forge substance in his leadership. Fine Gael requires a re-establishment of its grit to forge a new substance to its governance. Akin to W.T. Cosgrave at the helm of the state at its establishment or Leo Varadkar at the helm during COVID-19, Fine Gael responds marvelously to acute crises but they must carry this over to day-to-day crises such as Health and Housing.

The significance of the Great Depression as a turning point not only in FDR’s leadership practice but also in US History cannot be understated. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins said of the deepening Depression of 1933: “It is hard today to reconstruct the atmosphere of 1933 and to evoke the terror caused by unrelieved poverty and prolonged unemployment”. The economy had reached ‘rock bottom’. The future of capitalism, indeed of democracy itself, appeared grim” (Kearns). Modern interpretation of the Great Depression would undoubtedly class this as a VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Compelx, Ambiguous). “American industry was paralyzed; a quarter of the labor force was unemployed, and the hours of those who were working had been radically reduced. People had lost farms, homes, and small businesses that had been in their families for generations. Thousands of banks had collapsed, taking with them the deposits and savings of millions of people. The relief funds of cities and states were exhausted. Starving people wandered the streets. Food riots broke out” (Kearns). It was in response to this catastrophe that FDR’s innate leadership traits crystallized in the form of a vision for a New Deal and the will to achieve this transformation.

Daniel Goleman in his book: ‘Leadership That Get Results’, put forward the idea of 6 distinct Leadership Styles with accompanying behaviors, emotional intelligence capabilities, optimal environments and suggested impacts on the working climate. Goleman defines a visionary leadership as: the ability to take charge and inspire with a compelling vision.

In his inaugural address as President of the United States in 1933, he drew a line in the sand and unfurled a new canvas: “This is a day of national consecration”. With this one sentence he drew an immediate sharp line of demarcation between what had gone before and what was about to begin. He then set about exercising his self-confidence and his empathy to mobilize his people towards a new vision, to become a catalyst for positive change. He set about restoring public confidence, spirit and morale. Roosevelt began by directly facing the facts of the dire situation. “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth”, – he declared, to address ‘honestly’ the situation in our country. “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment”. But he famously asserted, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This sense of ambition mixed with empathy, was characteristic of Roosevelt’s sociability that would later characterize his Fireside chats.

He told his people to accompany him and infused a sense of shared purpose and direction. He made it clear what they could expect from him: “He told the country he was prepared to recommend to Congress a series of measures that ‘a stricken Nation’ required. He put forward a new image for a better America, a more ethical country that serves the many and not the few. Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now”. This action, this new vision, took the form of the New Deal. These were a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by FDR during the period 1933-1936 in response to needs for relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression. Major federal programs and agencies included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). (Ref.) Two of the key hallmarks of FDR’s New Deal were the United States Banking Act (1933) and the Social Security Act (1935), which ushered in, simultaneously, the longest era of sustained economic growth in US history and a fundamental paradigm shift in the realm of social equality. Ultimately, FDR had the vast emotional intelligence a visionary leader needs to understand that the people were exhausted and broken by the speculators and ‘money changers’ and new that he had to present and act early on a new positive, compelling vision to become the catalyst for change. Kearns summed it up: “The Inauguration Day of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began in prayer and ended in action. His every word and deed communicated the clear vision that this day represented no mere changing of the guard from one party to another. Something vast and debilitating had come to an end; something new and hopeful was beginning”.

In one speech, that lasted a mere 18 minutes FDR had at once laid out a new vision for his country. This is among the greatest lessons I have learned from FDR, that if you are fortunate enough to be given the honor of a leadership position then you must take it by the proverbial scruff of the neck, you must lay down your mark and you must lay out your vision. Clear objectives, well communicated are the key to effective visionary leadership.

Having put forward his vision of the New Deal, FDR capitalized on his transformational leadership capacities in order to achieve it. Transformational leaders tend to focus on providing a clear mission and instilling pride in the workforce while having high expectations so gaining respect and trust; they function by adopting a rational and careful problem-solving approach to the tasks to be achieved while being focused on a coaching management style. They tend to be optimistic and hopeful, with a development focus. They can produce improved performance in situations of uncertainty and change, creating positive changes on followers and helps them to take more initiative (Burns, 1978). This is in contrast to transactional leaders who tend to focus on transactions or relationship between leaders and followers. They are often a hindrance to change and fosters a climate of mediocrity. FDR’s response to this environment and implementation of the New Deal set of reforms, in particular in the United States Banking Act (1933) and The Social Security Act (1935), epitomized his transformational leadership capabilities and his ability to act on his vision of a new American policy. “When he (FDR) promised that he and the Democrats would become prophets of a new order, no one could imagine the extent to which they would transform the federal government over the next twelve years by creating a welfare state and making the United Sates into the world’s greatest power” (Robert Dallek ‘Franklin Roosevelt, A Political Life’).

Key characteristics of transformational leadership include (Kearns): 1) demarcation between what has gone before and what will happen ahead, i.e. set a new vision; 2) mobilization people towards that vision and leadership by example; 3) addressing systemic problems and launching lasting reforms; 4) being open to experiment and designing flexible agencies to deal with new problems.

The Banking Act of 1933 (the 1933 Banking Act) joined together two long-standing Congressional projects: (1) a federal system of bank deposit insurance championed by Representative Steagall and (2) the regulation (or prohibition) of the combination of commercial and investment banking and other restrictions on ‘speculative’ bank activities championed by Senator Glass as part of a general desire to ‘restore’ commercial banking to the purposes envisioned by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The Act came to be commonly known as ‘The Glass-Steagall Act’. It is cited commonly as a central cause for the largest period sustained economic growth in US history over the ensuing five decades, a 60-years expansion of the middle class, the largest increase in productivity, the largest increase in median income and as a period which saw the US win World War II, put a man on the moon and a computer in every person’s home. The Social Security Act established social security and promised economic security for the elderly, the poor and the sick. For the first time the federal government took responsibility for the economic security of the aged, the temporarily unemployed, dependent children, and the handicapped. The Social Security Act contributed to a dramatic decline in poverty among the elderly. It put forward the notion that Americans would now live in a society. Furthermore, Roosevelt insisted that it should be funded by payroll taxes rather than from the general fund, saying, “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program”. FDR transformational leadership practice created long-lasting solutions to systemic problems that were flexible enough to withstand the test of time. Policy that balances economic growth with social growth must be the cornerstone for any program for government. The US Banking Act and Social Security Act show that man can strive for more without leaving a man/woman behind. On the contrary however, while FDR had an excellent overall capacity to induce transformation in his organization and indeed the nation, there is evidence to suggest that his management style was somewhat lacking as per the transformational framework and was in many ways almost transactional, fostering a sense of competition and near conflict amongst his staff: “The president stayed in charge of his administration…by drawing fully on his formal and informal powers as Chief Executive; by raising goals, creating momentum, inspiring a personal loyalty, getting the best out of people…by deliberately fostering among his aides a sense of competition and a clash of wills that led to disarray, heartbreak, and anger but also set off pulses of executive energy and sparks of creativity…and always by persuading, flattering, juggling, improvising, reshuffling, harmonizing, conciliating, manipulating”.

Transformational leaders are built by infusing their inherent traits with those of challenge to create real substance. To become a transformational leader, you must go through a period transformation yourself. FDR’s ability to transform the fortunes of the United States lies in his ability to transform himself. FDR made that apprenticeship in his early political positions: Assistant Undersecretary to the Navy, Governor of New York. For me, I choose to do this in the private sector, specifically the investing/finance industry.

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