Leadership Lessons from The Four Freedoms
A timeless message from January 6 many years ago.
“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941
January 6 is one of those dates that will be hauntingly etched into our collective history.
Like December 7 or September 11, January 6, 2021 was an occasion when irredeemable harm was inflicted upon the United States. But this time, it was from within.
But January 6, 1941—exactly 80 years before—marked another memorable occasion: the delivery of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech. Its development and key elements provide a window into leadership and communication.
A Team of Colleagues
As he was preparing this speech, as he did with many, FDR assembled his most trusted advisors: Harry Hopkins, Samuel Rosenman, Robert Sherwood. Along the way, he also got input from Adolf Berle and Benjamin Cohen in the State Department.
It’s a lesson in collaboration and the development of ideas. While Roosevelt may have had a vision, he needed help in bringing that vision to life. Every good leader taps into the talent around him to execute ideas.
Over the course of many drafts (seven, to be precise), the speech came to life. But Roosevelt knew the power of the spoken word, and was intimately involved in editing and rearranging phrases and paragraphs.
In particular, he knew the power of opening lines and of a powerful conclusion, as it is possible for a message in the middle of a speech to be forgotten.
He opened his speech with this attention-grabber:
“I address you, the members of this new Congress, at a moment unprecedented in the history of the union. I use the word “unprecedented” because at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.”
An ominous opening that presaged the attack on Pearl Harbor less than a year later.
But FDR knew that amid the turmoil in the then-complex world of 1941, there were fundamental issues that needed attention. Indeed, in the middle of his speech are lines that are just as relevant today as they were in that time:
“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.”
These sentiments, while important, didn’t get the same press — nor are they remembered as vividly from a historical perspective — as the powerful conclusion.
To Sum Up
But Roosevelt knew that his conclusion had to pack a punch. He needed to leave his audience with something upon which they could all agree.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the fourth draft of the speech that the Four Freedoms appeared, and they were the brainchild of Roosevelt.
Roosevelt called his triumvirate into his private study to discuss his ideas for the peroration. Rosenman described the setting:
“We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling. It was a long pause—so long that it began to become uncomfortable. Then he leaned forward again in his chair…and dictated the words so slowly that on the yellow pad I had in my lap I was able to take them down myself in longhand as he spoke.”
We know those enduring words, as Roosevelt delivered them to Congress almost word-for-word the way Rosenman transcribed them on his yellow pad from FDR’s dictation:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”
These freedoms were so universally understandable and acceptable that they formed the basis of the Atlantic treaty with Churchill later that year and the United Nations Declaration a year later.
A remarkable tale of leadership and communication around a universal message.
Those freedoms ought to echo throughout the workforce as well: your employees should be able to freely express themselves, be fairly compensated, and come to a work environment absent of fear.
May we remember those four freedoms today and forevermore.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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FDR Library: “FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech”
American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Four Freedoms”