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FDR and Center Stage Leadership

Written by: on February 11, 2021

What about those times when a leader needs to lead immediately and authoritatively? For all of the attraction many may have toward collaborative and affiliative, somewhat “backstage” styles of leadership as Simon Walker might describe, there are occasions when a more “commanding” style of leadership is necessary. For those in the military, this is probably the expected style. For many who are only familiar with surface-level aspects of leadership, this is likely the most familiar example of leadership.

Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in the White House as an example of this style of leadership. Simon Walker lifts two eras of FDR’s presidency, his actions to bring the country out of the Great Depression and his leadership during World War II, in his explanation of the “Commanding” (PSC) strategy.

When FDR was elected president in 1932, the United States was in a mess. The stock market crash in October 1929 had plunged the country into the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover’s general approach had been not to interfere with commerce, expecting the economy to recover without (or with very minimal) government intervention. This strategy might have been consistent with Hoover’s ideology, but it had not worked. And by the spring of 1933, the entire banking industry was on the verge of shutting down and the nation’s financial system was near death. Goodwin writes, “no leader was more prepared to diagnose the national malady correctly and assert himself as ‘a vital human need’ than ‘old Doc Roosevelt’.”[1]

Before even taking office, Roosevelt was formulating a strategy to address the nation’s crisis. His inaugural address was an honest assessment of the challenges ahead, but also an invitation for the country to rally around new leadership and new possibilities. He, his cabinet, and Congressional leaders hit the ground running to create and implement a new strategy to breathe living into the banks. Following that, other efforts aimed at job creation and infrastructure were hatched. “Before Congress adjourned on its hundredth day, fifteen major pieces of legislation had been passed and signed into law. Billions of dollars were appropriated…to weave the vast safety net of protection and regulation that would eventually become the New Deal.”[2]

This is not a commentary on political ideologies. Certainly the New Deal had its challenges and its critics. But there is no mistaking the unprecedented effectiveness of Roosevelt’s first hundred days. The country was facing an enormous problem. FDR arrived with a mandate from the electorate and a plan to do something. What is more remarkable, especially given today’s political climate, was the willingness of Congressional leaders from both parties to try. Some of this can be attributed to the desperate nature of the times. And some must be attributed to Roosevelt’s “success in developing a common mission, clarifying problems, mobilizing action, and earning people’s trust.” [3]

Roosevelt certainly did not suffer from a failure of nerve. His demeanor was determined and optimistic. He would toss out big ideas, then leave it to the team members to work out the details. Friedman writes, “the expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of a community possible.”[4] There was definitely a sense within Roosevelt’s administration, extending into the country itself, that FDR had become a father-figure to the nation and they wanted to make the father proud. And a new era of US American productivity and confidence emerged. “Well-defined self in a leader…is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”[5]

In describing Roosevelt’s Commanding strategy, Simon Walker acknowledges that this style is most closely associated with totalitarian regimes, where the authority has all of the power.[6] However, what the Commanding strategy can achieve is effectively containing fear and anxiety so that it does not become overwhelming. Walker uses the example of a calm adult who helps to reassure a child.[7] Roosevelt claimed his authority as the nation’s leader and sprang into action to try to move the country in a new direction. But he also presented a face and voice of calm resolve to the people. His famous “fireside chats” are a great example of how FDR sought to make his case while also raising the confidence of the nation.

It has been said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Certainly if one is only capable of operating from a Commanding strategy of leadership, then authoritarianism may seem to be the solution to every problem. On the other hand, there are moments when an organization, family, team, or nation needs someone to claim center stage. We can only hope and pray that in those times, the right person rises.

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 274.

[2] Ibid, 293.

[3] Ibid, 305.

[4] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 174.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 214.

[7] Ibid, 211.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

10 responses to “FDR and Center Stage Leadership”

  1. mm Jer Swigart says:

    I agree with your final paragraph. Yet it seems that “center-stage” leadership has been lauded as the most effective. I’m wondering about the journey that leaders groomed in that leadership philosophy need to go on in order to find themselves backstage (or even among the audience) as a rule and the center-stage moments as the exception. Any ideas?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Good friends- people close enough and trusted to offer accountability and perspective?

      An effective and clear system of checks and balances?

      The emotional intelligence to understand why the Commanding strategy might be necessary in a moment coupled with the personal integrity to resist the temptation to exploit or manipulate the circumstances for personal gain?

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    Kennedy in 1961 did a similar thing with people. The separation caused by the civil rights issues and the growing concern over Vietnam President Kennedy challenged a nation to put a man on the moon with in 10 years. We didn’t have the technology but America came together and made it happen.

    With a obviously divided church I wonder what it will take to bring us together despite our theological and doctrinal issues?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Kennedy’s challenge was effective in part because of the fear that the Soviets would get there first and use the advantage to end US American civilization. Walker points out how the Commanding strategy is often what’s needed in anxious or fearful times. In some ways, the space race focused the nation’s fear back in the direction of Communism. It may have united the country to a degree, but it proved insufficient in addressing systemic racism and issues of justice and equality.

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I don’t think there’s any real doubt to the effectiveness of the “commanding” leadership persona. When things need to get done, you need to have someone who will push it forward. On any leadership team, they’re a vital component. I know that’s one of my own personal challenges in leadership – pushing things forward. Part of the problem is that when you have little experience in offering that style of leadership, it can come across as awkward and even damaging because there’s a level of self-awareness needed. The authority needs to be kept in check, which can be difficult if you’re not sure HOW to keep it in check.

    When you think of your own leadership team, do you see a variety of leadership styles coming together?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I remember my years as a church planter where so much of the DNA and culture of the church had to be carefully “managed,” especially early on. A colleague of mine advocated for the “benevolent dictator” style of leadership, and it worked well for us. I had a great time of very different kinds of people- all who lead with different styles, but were comfortable in their roles and helped me be comfortable (and humble) in mine.

      Two lessons I learned when I was given a new appointment- one, the church I planted found it disorienting when their next pastor brought a different style, and two, having none of the same support structure in my new setting made it difficult to develop the kind of trust necessary to deal with the issues we faced there. The redeeming part of that is how the church I planted dealt much better with their next pastoral transition and how I was more intentional in my next appointment about building a framework of trust and collaboration.

  4. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    I continue to be amazed at the parallels between Mussolini and Roosevelt. Both navigated the exact same time period in similar yet different ways. As I read your post, the word “demeanor” comes to mind. It seems Roosevelt’s demeanor was such that it instilled confidence and peace in the government and nation. Yes, times were tough, but because of his steady, confident presence, people trusted he would tackle the challenges and bring forth solutions. Mussolini’s demeanor was one of authoritarianism and instilled loyalty via fear. What shapes a leader’s demeanor? Childhood? Cultural influence? All of the above?

    How has your leadership demeanor transformed over the years? What external or internal influences have shaped it? What impact has that had on your ministry contexts?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I can’t say I know what every factor would be in determining demeanor, but I think you’re right. The way we are shaped, and the way we respond to challenges in earlier life do influence how we lead later. Roosevelt’s challenges are well-documented, especially around his health. During his days in Warm Springs, GA, he often engaged with other polio patients as “architect, developer, program director, head counselor, therapy director, and spiritual advisor all rolled into one.” They called him “old Doc Roosevelt.” (Goodwin 274.) He was undoubtedly a determined and optimistic guy who brought out the best in others. That probably developed in lots of ways over a great amount of time, but also a mindset of believing things will turn out for the best when one is making the best of things. As for my own lessons, I shared a bit of this in my response to Dylan.

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Another great post, John! So appreciate hearing the voices of Friedman and Walker to go along with ‘theme’ from your chosen biography.

    Touting decisiveness in an opportune moment requiring focus and reliable certainty can make or break the leader.

    Such balance, in every movement, is big. The sweetest leaders of history, it seems, have been able to come close to mastery of this balance.

    Is the authoritarian leader given station only until the balance in public approval is off set?

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    We talk about the woes of 2020, but those held little against the stock market crash, the depression, the dust bowl, and WWII. What else are you learning about leading in “unprecedented times”?

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