Strategies: Eleanor Roosevelt's story inspires, especially now

— -- Listen to the news, and you'll hear words that frighten everyone in small business. For the first time in my life, economists and analysts talk not just about recession, but use that most-dreaded term, "depression" — and look to see how we pulled out of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

One of the most inspirational leaders of that time is one of my role models: first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Because this week marks the anniversary of Roosevelt's birthday (born Oct. 11, 1884) it's an appropriate time to recall some of her traits and philosophies that I find inspirational for entrepreneurs, small-businesspeople, and the average Joe and Jane facing tougher financial times.

Keep in mind that while government action is critical, our attitudes are also important. If all of us live in fear and panic mode, our economy will seize up. On the other hand, if we blithely behave as if nothing has changed, we'll be too vulnerable to the realities of the marketplace. Instead, we must recognize reality but face it with optimism and energy.

That's exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt did. She was a realist who never lost her belief in a better future and maintained an unflagging commitment to help make that future a reality. That's what we have to do, too.

Eleanor's life story reads like a novel. (In fact, her biography, written by Blanche Wiesen Cook, is a page-turner.) Eleanor came from wealth and prominence (her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt), but her childhood was dismal. Orphaned before she was 10, her mother ridiculed her; her father was an alcoholic.

Nevertheless, young Eleanor somehow blossomed and, luckily, entered into a marriage based on mutual love to her distant-cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That marriage quickly turned humiliating and suffocating.

Yet Eleanor found strength from her own pain to have compassion and commitment to those who were in even greater pain. During her years as first lady, 1933-1945, she was the country's strongest champion of the downtrodden and voice for America's Depression-era poor. She fought for civil rights, women's rights and economic justice. She became the conscience of our society. After FDR died, she chaired the United Nations committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No other first lady — before or since — made such a positive impact on America and the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt was not a modern politician. She didn't follow opinion polls or focus groups. She learned that to be a success in life you need a set of values that guides your actions. Over the years I've learned that same lesson applies to business — to be a long-term success you have to be driven by values, not just by profit.

She was also a prolific writer, and we have many leadership lessons for entrepreneurs in Eleanor's own words:

• "Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. ... Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, 'It can't be done.' "

• "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. ... You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

• "A stumbling block to the pessimist is a steppingstone to the optimist."

• "The things you refuse to meet today always come back at you later on, usually under circumstances which make the decision twice as difficult as it originally was."

• "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

• "Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

• "It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself."

• "A woman is like a teabag, only in hot water do you realize how strong she is."

• "In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves ... the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility."

• "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

• "Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively."

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest book is Successful Marketing: Secrets & Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free business tips at For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2008.