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The Roosevelts: Eight presidential lessons in leadership

April 8, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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A renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin possesses a wealth of knowledge regarding the successes and failures of American presidents.  Great leadership qualities were among the traits that made two of these men—Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt—successful, said Kearns Goodwin in her keynote address to the opening session of National Council’s 2013 Conference this morning, who cited a series of presidential “leadership lessons:”

1.      Engage in on-going learning. More than any other president she’s studied, Kearns Goodwin remarked that Teddy dedicated himself to on-going learning. He adored reading and always carried a book. He even had one to read between White House visitors and one by the front door to read while waiting for his wife to come down the stairs. His curiosity and desire for continuous education proves that even the president—or a CEO of a behavioral health facility—may know much about something, but not about everything. There is, she said, always room to grow.

2.      Delve into other realms of the company. The higher his office, the more Teddy insisted on getting “outside the bubble” by going into the field, she explained.  As a police commissioner, he performed random check-ins on the officers to make sure they were doing their duty at overnight posts. For those doing their jobs, he would give a pat on the back. Those found sleeping or enjoying a meal at an all-night restaurant were required to appear before him as soon as the department opened the next morning, Kearns Goodwin said. After becoming president, Teddy spent more time on the road than any president before him, talking to the people, meeting with the newspaper editors and listening for press. The lesson: even as a president, a police commissioner, or a CEO, it’s important to understand the different facets of any company and ensure that those serving other roles are enjoying their roles and performing them efficiently.

3.      Be a master of communicating. Kearns Goodwin said that Teddy Roosevelt understood that in order to succeed, his arguments must appeal to the” plain rugged man.” Similarly, the ability of behavioral health leaders to communicate with people regardless of social status, education, or cultural differences is essential.  

4.      Maximize effectiveness of words. Teddy knew how to maximize coverage of his speeches and statements because he had a great relationship with the press. FDR, too, seemed to have a special talent for knowing when to communicate to the public, when to bolster morale, and when to hold back, Kearns Goodwin remarked. The leadership lesson for behavioral healthcare providers is to communicate regularly with the public, and address the surrounding community’s wants, needs, or concerns.

5.      Be able to take criticism. Kearns Goodwin said Teddy Roosevelt had a remarkable ability to laugh at himself and take criticism. This is important for the leaders in this field because along with lesson #1, no one ever stops learning. Mistakes will be made, she noted, and it’s important to understand that criticism can be helpful.

6.      Know how to relax and replenish. Besides reading books, Teddy reportedly enjoyed hunting for weeks at a time as a means of refreshing his mind and body. FDR enjoyed collecting stamps, playing poker and hosting a cocktail hour at the White House where he had one rule: no one speaks about “the war” for that hour. Good leaders, said Kearns Goodwin, understand that having hobbies and interests outside the organization can be extremely beneficial.

7.      Pick yourself up when you fall. Kearns Goodwin said that FDR understood that “there will be defeats before there will be victories; we will lose battles before we win them.” Keeping focused and determined on the goal regardless of the obstacles is a quality that any leader should possess.

8.      Surround yourself with other leaders. FDR had the willingness to surround himself by strong leaders who would challenge him about the decisions he was making, Kearns Goodwin explained. For behavioral health providers, participating in group discussions, attending conferences, joining associations, and/or networking will build that circle of leaders. These leaders can not only be addressed in a time of need or concern, but can ask the same in return. With more leaders comes more brains; with more brains comes more ideas; and, with more ideas comes more success.

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