As the 32nd President of the United States, he guided the country through the Great Depression of the 1930s and most of World War II. Through the course of World War II, he envisioned the new World Order post World War II, including the United Nations. As a manager, he operated with the mantra, “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat, what I seek is the highest possible batting average.”
For his unique inspirational leadership, a brilliant ability to experiment and implement and a unique style of communicating with his electorate, Franklin D. Roosevelt makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management.
A results oriented executor: the first hundred days
The day before FDR’s inauguration, banks in 32 of the country’s 48 states had closed and deposits evaporated. Money was completely useless — there was nothing to buy.
On Saturday, March 4, 1933, FDR delivered his famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural speech and got into the weeds right away. While thousands were still attending inaugural celebrations, FDR invited his cabinet to the White House where Justice Benjamin Cardozo swore them in as a group — a bipartisan mix of conservatives and liberals, including the first female Secretary of Labor.
That night, FDR stayed up past 1 a.m. with longtime aide Louis Howe, discussing the plan that would become known as the “Hundred Days,” a bold experiment in governing that set the bar for new leaders. Henceforth, the first hundred days for executives in all types of institutions would become the symbolic benchmark for measuring their early successes.
On Sunday, March 5, 1933, FDR met with Congressional leaders to enlist their support, and then issued a proclamation closing the country’s banks until Congress could pass reform legislation. The following Thursday, Congress convened in a 100-day special session and in just seven hours, legislation safeguarding banks and depositors was introduced, passed and signed. After passage of the Emergency Banking Relief Act, three out of every four banks were open within a week.
FDR’s first days in office set the tone for his presidency and were characterized by speed, confidence and a willingness to try new things. “There are many ways of going forward,” he noted, “but only one way of standing still.”
During the Hundred Days, FDR introduced — and Congress established — dozens of agencies that stimulated farm programs, initiated conservation programs, outlawed child labor and lifted wages. Timing helped. With war looming, American industry awoke — providing new jobs and what Roosevelt called the “great arsenal of democracy.”
Two key recovery measures of The Hundred Days were the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The AAA established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was charged with increasing prices of agricultural commodities and expanding the proportion of national income going to farmers. Although quite controversial when introduced—especially because it required the destruction of newly planted fields at a time when many Americans were going hungry—the AAA program gradually succeeded in raising farmers’ incomes. However, it was not until 1941 that farm income reached even the inadequate level of 1929.
Another important recovery measure was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a public corporation created in 1933 to build dams and hydroelectric power plants and to improve navigation and flood control in the vast Tennessee River basin. The TVA, which eventually provided cheap electricity to impoverished areas in seven states along the river and its tributaries, reignited a long-standing debate over the proper role of government in the development of the nation’s natural resources. The constitutionality of the agency was challenged immediately after its establishment but was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1936.
In addition to programs aimed at providing economic relief for workers and farmers and creating jobs for the unemployed, Roosevelt initiated a slate of reforms of the financial system, notably the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to protect depositors’ accounts and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate the stock market and prevent abuses of the kind that led to the 1929 crash. Both these entities have stood the test of time and exist in equal importance even today.
Connecting with his audience
FDR wanted to communicate directly with the electorate instead of them reading or hearing second hand opinion and commentary via the newspapers and radio. So he offered voters a chance to receive information unadulterated through the new medium of radio via his fireside chats.
Radio was a new-fangled technology during his time in office, but the president used it to good effect and he became one of the best orators of the 20th century.
The fireside chats were a series of evening radio addresses given by the President between 1933 and 1944. Roosevelt spoke with familiarity to millions of Americans about the promulgation of the Emergency Banking Act in response to the banking crisis, the recession, New Deal initiatives, and the course of World War II. On radio, he was able to quell rumors and explain his policies. His tone and demeanor communicated self-assurance during times of despair and uncertainty. Roosevelt was regarded as an effective communicator on radio, and the fireside chats kept him in high public regard throughout his presidency. Their introduction was later described as a “revolutionary experiment with a nascent media platform.
Roosevelt first used the radio fireside chats in 1929 as Governor of New York. Roosevelt was a Democrat facing a conservative Republican legislature, so during each legislative session he would occasionally address the residents of New York directly. His third gubernatorial address on April 3, 1929, on WGY radio was his first fireside chat.
In these speeches, Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed. Letters poured in after each of these addresses, which helped pressure legislators to pass measures Roosevelt had proposed.
Before his tenure, the White House mailroom was staffed by one mailperson, but within a week of his first radio appearance 70 people were needed to cope with almost 500,000 letters of appreciation.
The Third Term and post-World War world
While the world was in the throes of the World War II, Roosevelt went for an unprecedented third term and won. In the 1944 State of the Union Address, he advocated that Americans should think of basic economic rights as a Second Bill of Rights. He stated that all Americans should have the right to “adequate medical care”, “a good education”, “a decent home”, and a “useful and remunerative job”. In the most ambitious domestic proposal of his third term, Roosevelt proposed the G.I. Bill, which would create a massive benefits program for returning soldiers. Benefits included post-secondary education, medical care, unemployment insurance, job counseling, and low-cost loans for homes and businesses. The G.I. Bill passed unanimously in both houses of Congress and was signed into law in June 1944. Of the fifteen million Americans who served in World War II, more than half benefitted from the educational opportunities provided for in the G.I. Bill
On December 8, 1941, the day after Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress, which declared war on Japan. The first president to leave the country during wartime, Roosevelt spearheaded the alliance between countries combating the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan), meeting frequently with Churchill and seeking to establish friendly relations with the Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, he spoke constantly on the radio, reporting war events and rallying the American people in support of the war effort (as he had for the New Deal).
He was a commander in chief who worked with and sometimes around his military advisers. He helped develop a strategy for defeating Germany in Europe through a series of invasions, first in North Africa in November 1942, then Sicily and Italy in 1943, followed by the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944.
At the same time, Allied forces rolled back Japan in Asia and the eastern Pacific. During this time, Roosevelt promoted the formation of the United Nations.
In 1942, Roosevelt formed a new body, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which made the final decisions on American military strategy. The Joint Chiefs were chaired by Admiral William D. Leahy, the most senior officer in the military. Roosevelt avoided micromanaging the war and let his top military officers make most decisions. Roosevelt’s civilian appointees handled the draft and procurement of men and equipment, but no civilians – not even the secretaries of War or Navy – had a voice in strategy. Roosevelt avoided the State Department and conducted high-level diplomacy through his aides, especially Harry Hopkins, whose influence was bolstered by his control of the Lend Lease funds
On January 1, 1942, the United States, Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and twenty-two other countries (the Allied Powers) issued the Declaration by United Nations, in which each nation pledged to defeat the Axis powers.
Roosevelt coined the term “Four Policemen” to refer to the “Big Four” Allied powers of World War II, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. They cooperated informally on a plan in which American and British troops concentrated in the West; Soviet troops fought on the Eastern front; and Chinese, British and American troops fought in Asia and the Pacific. The United States also continued to send aid via the Lend-Lease program to the Soviet Union and other countries. The Allies formulated strategy in a series of high-profile conferences as well as by contact through diplomatic and military channels.
In November 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met to discuss strategy and post-war plans at the Tehran Conference, where Roosevelt met Stalin for the first time. At the conference, Britain and the United States committed to opening a second front against Germany in 1944, while Stalin committed to entering the war against Japan at an unspecified date. Subsequent conferences at Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks established the framework for the post-war international monetary system and the United Nations.
Yalta Conference and death
In 1944, as the tide of war turned toward the Allies, a weary and ailing Roosevelt managed to win election to a fourth term in the White House. The following February, he met with Churchill and Stalin in the Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt got Stalin’s commitment to enter the war against Japan after Germany’s impending surrender. (The Soviet leader kept that promise, but failed to honor his pledge to establish democratic governments in the eastern European nations then under Soviet control.) The “Big Three” also worked to build foundations for the post-war international peace organization that would become the United Nations.
After Roosevelt returned from Yalta, he was so weak that he was forced to sit down while addressing Congress for the first time in his presidency. In early April 1945, he left Washington and traveled to his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had long before established a nonprofit foundation to aid polio patients. Roosevelt suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died on April 12, 1945. He was succeeded in office by his vice president, Harry S. Truman.
His personality and legacy
FDR’s intelligence was apparent. He was a well-educated man from his youth, he attended Groton School in 1904, Columbia Law School from 1904-1907, Harvard College, Harvard University, and Columbia University. All through his educational career, he received good grades and realized that he excelled in law and politics. He was a quick study and had the patience to read books from cover to cover and talk to great lengths about any topic. He was able to learn a lot of information through conversations and that was his preferred method of learning.
During his run for office, FDR campaigned on a “New Deal” for America. While he was short on specifics, his energy, charisma and message of hope resonated. “Happy Days Are Here Again” played at all FDR events. Campaign Manager Jim Farley observed that Roosevelt’s “ability to discuss political issues in short, simple sentences made a powerful impression. There was a touch of destiny about the man.”
Biographer James M. Burns suggests that Roosevelt’s policy decisions were guided more by pragmatism than ideology and that he “was like the general of a guerrilla army whose columns, fighting blindly in the mountains through dense ravines and thickets, suddenly converge, half by plan and half by coincidence, and debouch into the plain below.” Roosevelt argued that such apparently haphazard methodology was necessary. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” he wrote. “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
“I think,” Eleanor (Roosevelt) observed, “probably the thing that took most courage in his life was his mastery and his meeting of polio. I never heard him complain.” And though anyone remembering how athletic and strong he had been as a young man could not fail to realize what a terrific battle must have gone on within him, “he just accepted it as one of those things that was given you as discipline in life.” After his struggle with polio, he seemed less arrogant, less smug, less superficial, more focused, more complex, more interesting. “There had been a plowing up of his nature,” Labor Secretary Frances Perkins commented. “The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of philosophical concepts.” He had always taken great pleasure in people, but now they become what one historian has called “his vital links to life.” Far more intensely than before, he reached out to know them, to understand them, to pick up their emotions, to put himself into their shoes. No longer belonging to his old world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and the underprivileged, with people to whom fate had dealt a difficult hand.
During his Presidency, in absolute terms, the Real GDP went from $0.82 trillion in 1932 to $2.35 trillion in 1944. In terms of the GDP growth rate, from a -12.9% in 1932 to a healthy 8.0% in 1944. Unemployment which was at an alarming 23.6% in 1932 was brought down to a near-zero 1.2% in 1944.
FDR is often talked alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of America’s greatest Presidents. If Washington was the US President of the 18th century and Lincoln, the President of the 19th century, FDR certainly was the US President of the 20th century!
FDR’s leadership and courage during the worst years of the Great Depression and World War II are remembered as his lasting achievements. As one biographer noted, “He lifted himself from a wheelchair to lift the nation from its knees.”