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7 Keys to Success in First 100 Days: Lessons from FDR

Posted on February 16, 2017 at 8:50 AM


President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) accomplishments in his first 100 days set a bar against which every subsequent US president has been measured. It is an unfair bar in many ways, as the situation FDR inherited 84 years ago is much different than modern times. It’s also not clear FDR even intended 100 days to be a bar against which to measure his own administration. What is clear is that any new leader should consider focusing on the same seven principles FDR did in his first 100 days. 

1) Inspire confidence – FDR used his first act in office, his inaugural address, to instill confidence among Americans in his ability to do the job. He did that first by walking and standing for his speech despite the paralysis that normally confined him to a wheel chair. He also did that by the bold content and delivery of his speech. His famous line about “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” came early in that speech and showed he was not intimidated by the dire situation he was inheriting.

2) Set an agenda – FDR inherited countless problems, but he set an agenda of goals around just three simple themes - relief, recovery, and reform. The blizzard of new programs he launched in that first 100 days could be explained by tying them back to his simple agenda instead of to a long list. People naturally seek to have some organizing principle to take in complex information, and FDR provided one for them.

3) Launch your team – FDR swore his whole cabinet in as a group the same day he took his oath. He did that to avoid wasting any days at the start of his 100 days. The group swearing in may have also built a sense of shared focus and urgency among the new heads of departments more used to competing than cooperating.

4) Ensure accountability – FDR had a unique management style sometimes called the “hub and spoke,” with him in the center of everything. He wanted to delegate clear accountability for each of his goals. Instead of burying accountability layers down in an existing bureaucracy, he often created an entirely new organization focused on each program that would report directly to him. While this accountability approach may not have been efficient, it was what was effective for FDR’s leadership style.

5) Stop the bleeding – Every leader inherits something that is causing problems that get in the way of achieving other results. For FDR, that was the run on the banking system. He realized that he had to tackle that immediately even if it was a messy problem with no easy, painless solution. FDR did the most radical fix he could on his first full day in office by closing the banks for a ‘holiday’ to let them get liquidity back in order. By putting a tourniquet on that wound, he gave himself space to push the rest of his agenda.

6) Get quick wins – FDR had promised in his campaign to repeal the federal prohibition of alcohol sales in the US that had been around since 1920. He signed a bill in his first month that allowed some exemptions for weak beer and wine. Letting people drink alcohol legally again was not the most important thing facing the country, but FDR knew it would gain a lot of goodwill and confidence in his ability to deliver on his other goals.

7) Build stakeholder relationships – Like every president, FDR needed a productive relationship with Congress to pass the bills he needed to achieve his agenda. FDR realized that he also needed to build a direct link with the American people as well, particularly to increase the confidence in the banking system. FDR did this by taking advantage of radio to create that direct relationship with the American public through his “fireside chats.”

Even if you don't have natural leadership abilities like FDR, you can copy the underlying approach he took to make his first 100 days so historic.

Categories: People Leadership, Operational Excellence, Crisis Management