Lessons Every Leader Can Learn from Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks to Increase Your Leadership Effectiveness, Impact and Legacy
When we celebrated International Women’s Day a few weeks ago, I was inspired to reflect on women whose inspirational leadership, shared experience, powerful stories and lasting impact have added to my ability to be a better leader. I could list dozens, but two in particular jump out.
Of course, the two women whose leadership have most impacted me personally are my mother, Mary Morrissey, and my wife!
But the two women leaders I’d like to focus on today are women whose leadership is still felt in our country today, years after they died.
The principles they lived by are ones that I’ve learned from and adopted, transforming into a better leader as a result. You have an opportunity to become a better leader, as well, by adopting these same principles.
Leadership Lesson 1: Your Opinion Counts the Most
Most people know Eleanor Roosevelt as the First Lady of the United States, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But she was also an amazing leader in her own right.
I learned two big leadership lessons from Eleanor Roosevelt that I use on an ongoing regular basis. These lessons inspire me and have given me strength as a leader during tough times.
At 5’ 11’’, Eleanor was a very tall woman, especially for her day. She was a very physically strong presence to be around and did not not fit the mold of what was considered typical female beauty in the early 20th century. Because of that, she was ridiculed incessantly in the newspapers.
Think about being a person in the public spotlight and being picked on from all sides, including the media. How do you handle that? How do you move forward with strength in your life?
Eleanor said that there were two things that gave her strength and guided her forward. The first was, “All the water in the world can’t drown you, unless it gets in you.”
Everybody has an opinion. Everybody has an idea. Everyone thinks they know what’s most important — including Eleanor. She had a vision of what she wanted to create.
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the visionaries to help create the United Nations by encouraging the United States to join. As the first U.S. representative to the United Nations, she chaired the committee that created the Declaration for Human Rights. This history-making global document was the first time since the Magna Carta that we have defined in writing what it meant to be human, including the types of rights we have.
Helping to bring the United Nations into existence was only one of Eleanor’s accomplishments. No matter what she was doing, she had to be able to stand strong for what she believed in — as we all do. She knew that no matter what others’ opinions were, those opinions couldn’t affect her unless they got in her.
We can model Eleanor Roosevelt by asking ourselves these questions: Where in my life am I allowing others’ opinions to rattle me? And is it really important?
One of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt is, “What others think of me is none of my business.” My second favorite is, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I call these quotes to mind anytime someone else decides to share their opinion with me — especially their opinion of me. The truth of the matter is that the only thing that matters is what I believe. I decide whether I’ll get rattled by someone else’s opinion or not, just like I’ll decide whether to change my belief based on their input. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about us, our dreams, or our results. The only thing that matters is what we think.
This advice has definitely helped me. I’ve experienced times when I felt that maybe I should change what I believed or what I was going to do based on someone else’s thoughts or opinions. I just keep coming back to “What do I believe? What’s most important to me? What am I in love with? What can I stand behind?” Thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt, for that strength.
Leadership Lesson 2: Take a Stand for Your Beliefs
The second woman leader is sometimes called the “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement” — activist Rosa Parks.
Rosa first gained recognition in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man, which was the law in Montgomery, Alabama at the time.
Already seated in the first row of the “colored” section of the bus, Rosa was told she needed to give up her seat for a white man, because the “white only” section of the bus was full. The bus driver carried a gun and was within his legal rights at the time to shoot her for disobeying his order. Her life was on the line, and yet, she took a stand for herself and for other people of color. She refused to give up her seat and move even further to the back of the bus. Her courageous stand was one of the critical moves that sparked the civil rights movement starting in the mid-1950s.
The place where she took that stand still exists today, and you can visit it in Greenfield Village, Michigan. Henry Ford believed in this historic leadership moment enough to gather the place — the vehicle in which she took the stand — and restore it. This place now resides in a living museum full of amazing artifacts, such as the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and Thomas Edison’s workshop laboratory where he created the light bulb.
I visited Greenfield Village and sat in the very seat where Rosa Parks sat. It inspired me and evoked these questions for me: “Where have I been willing to move to the back of the bus in my own life? Where have I been unwilling to take a stand for what’s most important to me?”
I’m not talking just about political things or what we believe about the world at large, but also the little things that matter to me in my own life today. My own health and well-being is a great example. Is it time to take a stand for a greater sense of health and well-being in my life? Is it time to take a stand for better communication in my relationships? Where is it time to take a stand for making a difference in my work, contributing more to my employer, my employees, the teammates that I work with?
I encourage you to ask this question for yourself. Where have you been “moving to the back of the bus” in your life and business? And where are you willing to take a stand? If you feel so inspired, share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s support each other in taking stands for the things that matter most to us.
Live in Leadership
The lessons we can learn from Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks can be summarized as stay true to yourself.
You know yourself. You know what you believe in and the impact you’re called to make. Tune into your inner wisdom, heed your calling … and disregard anyone or anything that tries to distract you from what you’re meant to do.
So before you go today, I invite you to consider — how can you stay true to yourself today?
Please share in the comments below a time you’ve stood firm in the face of adversity and opposition and stayed true to what mattered most to you.
I would love to read your stories!