While preparing for the premiere of our newest program, I was shocked to learn that many of my younger colleagues were only vaguely familiar with the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt. For so many women of my generation, she was a seminal figure who led the way in showing that women have a responsibility to play an active role in public life.
Although she was of another era, I think that her example can serve as a powerful lesson in leadership, especially for young women today. Here are three things I think my younger colleagues should learn from Eleanor Roosevelt, in her own words:
1. “Choose a challenge instead of competence.”
Born into a prominent family, Eleanor Roosevelt could have lived a life that was expected of her generation. Instead, she chose to dedicate her life to public service, and fought tirelessly until her death to advance social equality and ensure that all people were granted basic human rights. Very often, we are faced with a choice between the familiar path, and the challenging road ahead. Choose the challenge.
2. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
As leaders, sometimes it can be hard to make decisions that go against tide. It is critical to stick to your convictions, recognizing that the outcome might be uncertain, but the risk is worth taking. We regularly make decisions to air programming of significance recognizing that it may not attract the largest audience, or the content may be provocative, but the work will play an important role in civic discourse. This may lead to criticism from some, but I feel it’s extremely important for public television to use its platform to tell important stories, not just popular ones. Staying true to your mission and convictions makes it much easier to stand up to potential critics.
3. “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.”
Sometimes it can be tempting to be overwhelmed by the many things that seem to work against us. But how powerful, and how important it can be, if we don’t give in to this temptation. As a woman born before women even had the right to vote, Eleanor Roosevelt chafed against the limits placed on women. But instead of bemoaning women’s second-place status, Eleanor worked tirelessly to change it, holding press conferences open to female reporters only, submitting a list of candidates for leadership positions to her husband, and tirelessly crusading for equal rights and representation for women. There are many pockets of darkness in our world today. Rather than feel that any change is hopeless, why not light a candle?
When I watched a screener of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, I thought how powerful their stories are for today’s leaders in business, government and the non-profit sector. They teach us powerful lessons about leadership, service, and vision. And all women –and men – should look to Eleanor Roosevelt’s powerful example: embracing challenges, following her own conscience, and fighting to bring positive change to the world.
Paula Kerger is the CEO of PBS.