What makes someone a great leader?

How do some people make a lasting difference in the world while most just struggle to get by?

Leaders like Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates had the same twenty-four hours in a day as everyone else, yet they accomplished more than most would dream possible.  We can learn a lot from them.

One of the greatest honors of my life has been interviewing many of the great leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries.  It’s been fascinating to know them and learn from them.  There are a few leaders, though, who came a before my time, who I’d have loved to meet with. One is Franklin Delano Roosevelt—arguably the greatest leader of the twentieth century.

FDR is the only president to serve more than two terms. During his unprecedented fourth term as president, he passed at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia.  The nation was heartbroken. In Washington D.C., half-a-million people lined up to see his casket arrive by train.  As the train passed through the city, one of the mourners cried so intensely that a reporter stopped and asked him if he knew the president personally.  “No,” said the man, “but he knew me.”

That’s the mark of a great leader.  Their followers feel known and understood.

How did Roosevelt gain such a deep level of trust from the people? He was anything but the common man—born one of the wealthiest and most prestigious families in America.  What was it about Roosevelt that made average people feel like they could relate to him? I think it comes down to three fundamental practices that are common to the greatest leaders and greatest communicators:

Reason #1: FDR had empathy.  For someone who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts (which, today, would be like growing up next to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg), FDR had a remarkable ability to connect with the plight of everyday Americans. Some historians think his battle with polio made him empathetic. The disease left him paralyzed from the waist down, and in constant discomfort.  But he didn’t complain or try to make others feel sorry.  Instead, polio caused him to turn outward to those struggling even more.

The major focus of FDR’s presidency was to help average people find economic security.  His presidency began during an unprecedented economic downturn.  Some communities had unemployment rates that reached 80-90%.  People lost hope.  A less empathetic president might’ve stuck to fiscal tradition—thinking the economy would eventually correct itself.  Not Roosevelt.  He put himself in the shoes of the people and commissioned America’s “New Deal,” which was a set of several government programs designed to revitalize the economy.

Whatever your opinion about these programs (experts still debate their long-term impact), the fact that Roosevelt was willing to lead such massive change is evidence of commitment to help people in need.  That commitment—born of empathy for those he served—is a major reason why he was so loved by the people.

 Reason #2: FDR was accessible.  During the Great Depression, and later, during World War II, Roosevelt utilized the power of radio to connect with Americans. In regular visits that would eventually be referred to as “fireside chats,” Roosevelt laid out his plans for economic reform andreassured the American people that their leader was on their side.

People felt like Roosevelt was their friend.  He spoke conversationally, in a regular tone with ordinary words. Seventy-percent of words used in fireside chats were among the five hundred most commonly-occurring terms in the English language.  And he spoke slower than most radio announcers of the time—using an average of sixty-five fewer words per minute.  If you have the chance,  you may want to listen to one of these chats.  They are exemplary lessons in diction, tone and inflection.  And, more importantly, they are wonderful examples of what it sounds like to talk with another person human to human.

The public response from these chats was tremendous.  The White House received ten times more mail per week during Roosevelt’s tenure than it did during the previous administration. FDR’s ability to intelligently lay out his goals and plans in a way that everyone could understand is something we can all learn from. There was no pretense. He was just himself.  The nation recognized that, and rallied behind him.

Reason #3: FDR was optimistic.  FDR’s inaugural speech in 1933 provided some of the most stirring words in any presidential speech.  In the depths the depression, while worry gripped the minds of the public, FDR said these famous words:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

The message of hope and optimism was a common theme throughout FDR’s presidency. A half century later, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the effects of an optimistic political style.  They found that 80% of elected US presidents since 1900 were more optimistic than their political opponents.  The researchers believed that the reason America tends to elect optimistic leaders is because it makes them feel more in control of their future.  Certainly, during the depression and second world war, America needed a leader who could provide a feeling of control and a hope for a brighter future.  FDR did that in spades.

These three traits—empathy, accessibility, and optimism—helped FDR become one of the greatest presidents in US history and arguably the greatest communicator we’ve ever had as a president. Who among us couldn’t learn something from his example?  Each of us can be a little more empathic.  Each of us can communicate a little more clearly.  Each of us can be a little more upbeat.  Obviously, we won’t all be leaders on the world stage, but we can be better leaders and make a positive difference in our own way.  Hopefully this blog gave you a few ideas about how to do that.

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