Eleanor Roosevelt

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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...
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