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Even Eleanor Roosevelt needed mentors

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Eleanor Roosevelt set the standard for today’s strong, visible first lady. But she had help along the way from at least two mentors.

Roosevelt (both her married and maiden name) started life with the advantages of wealth but the hardships of a cold, overly critical mother and an alcoholic father, both of whom died by the time she was 10. Sent off to boarding school, Roosevelt entered the care of headmistress Marie Souvestre, who cultivated the young Eleanor’s curiosity and taught her how to travel and operate independently.

In her late thirties, Eleanor met another great mentor in Louis Howe, FDR’s political confidant. By persuading Eleanor to campaign during husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s run for vice president in 1920, Howe began developing her skills in press relations and public speaking.

At first, she merely accompanied FDR. She had nothing to do on the train but knit and read. As the fourweek trip wore on, Howe sensed an opportunity. He started bringing papers to her berth, seeking her advice on speeches and policy. She later credited Howe with giving her “an intensive education” on the stump.

“You can do anything you have to do,” he told her. “Get out and try.”

Like Roosevelt, you’ll need different mentors at different stages. Some tips:

  • Don’t dither. Excuses will only hold you back. You have nothing to lose.
     
  • Recognize that you can’t know everything. Look for mentors who can help you address particular weak spots or develop new skills.
     
  • Open up to advice. It does no good to find mentors if you’re unwilling to follow their counsel.
     
  • Recognize that age and education level don’t matter.
     
  • Keep up strong social networks. Mentors can guide you in civic and personal matters, too.

— Adapted from Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, Robin Gerber, Penguin.

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