Leadership and Reinvention

When Franklin D. Roosevelt began his recovery from polio, he sought out a place that had warm water for him to exercise in. The warm springs in Georgia were exactly what he was looking for. He found the benefits so great that he decided to launch a permanent resort at the location to help others recover too.  The thing is, you don’t “recover” from polio the same way you get over a bad cold. You survive it if you’re lucky, and then you have to rebuild your life around its consequences. In the 1920s, years before the vaccine, many were left crippled or bedridden if they survived at all. The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was as much about the mental recovery of moving forward as it was about the new physical reality people learned to face. There is a lot this can teach us.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, is full of stories about FDR, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson as they faced impossible personal and public obstacles, including FDR’s bout with polio. All of the stories share a similar theme that we should take to heart in our professional lives: mental toughness is at least as important as physical toughness.  We should always plan for how the mind can move forward. Great leaders know this within themselves and use it to light the path for others. Since the future is ever-evolving, the work never stops.

Surviving and moving beyond a negative situation, be it market losses or a personal tragedy, requires great mental effort. FDR’s Warm Springs experience was about helping a person to reinvent themselves. While we may not take our clients off on a retreat, and certainly most cases we will see are less severe than polio, we should focus on where the mind was, where it is now, and where it is going. The goal these leaders embodied over and over again was to always paint a vivid picture of what we’re moving towards and why it was we were headed there. They combined both vision and grit to lift people up and out of their current status.

With the right leadership, both within ourselves and with others, there is much good we can do in the world. And, when we extend our care beyond the situation, focusing on both the mind and the body, we can build better relationships too. Turbulent times are where stronger bonds are formed. Like FDR, we should seek turbulence out and look for how we can create the most value for people who want and need our support. A little vision and grit can go a long way. We can all use our knowledge and leadership to help minds move forward.