Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR): mastering the art of planning

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is the only American to be president for more than 2 terms. He was popular. And yet, people directly working under him routinely complained about him.

Working under FDR was politically charged. He would micromanage his advisors. Circumvent their decisions. And often pitted multiple cabinet members against one another because FDR believed competition amongst them would lead to better ideas.

Everyone from Harold Ickes (his secretary of interior) to Cordell Hull (secretary of state) have publicly stated their dislike of FDR.

And yet, FDR did more than most other leaders. What made him an effective leader even when his followers didn’t like him much?

The planning fallacy

Our favourite behavioural psychologist – the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman had convinced the Israeli ministry of education to create a textbook on the topic of judgement and decision making. Kahneman had assembled a great team and got them to write a detailed outline for the textbook.

Out of curiosity, Kahneman asked all the team members how long they thought their project would take. All the estimates ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 years. Kahneman then asked a senior member of the team – Seymour Fox – who had overseen multiple textbook projects in the past: how long had other teams taken to finish their textbooks? His answer was that 40% didn’t finish their textbook projects. The ones that did took 7 to 10 years.

The funny bit? Before Fox was asked this, he had given an estimate of 2 years too. 

Fox’s experience and statistics proved to be right. It took Kahneman’s team 8 years to finish writing the textbook. By that time, Kahneman had left Israel, and the ministry of Education had lost all enthusiasm. The textbook was never used.

We are extremely bad at planning and getting big things done. And we are bad at it because we are optimists, rather than realists. Kahneman called this the planning fallacy. Because we focus on the most optimistic scenario, we end up underestimating the time needed.

FDR the planner

FDR on the other hand was excellent at getting big things done. People complained about FDR and yet worked for him loyally and for years because he was effective. He got things done.

How did FDR not fall victim to the planning fallacy? 

He circumvented. 

FDR would bypass his cabinet ministers. He would directly go to the lower level staffers and ask them questions. He would send his wife Eleanor Roosevelt to visit projects unannounced. 

This made people complain. But it also made FDR effective. Because he got realistic estimates for his projects. He bypassed people who would give him optimistic replies to look good.

That’s how FDR implemented legislation that gave America the Social Security Act and institutions like the SEC. 

But isn’t optimism good?

Be a realist while planning. And an optimist while working the plan.

FDR himself was an optimist. During the great depression, he rallied people with vigour: “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” He drove his people to be gritty and persistent. Gave them hope.

And that’s how he was elected president 4 times as well.

Action Summary:

  • During the planning stage, be a realist. Go to the root sources of data – of other people doing similar tasks to plan and estimate the time and resources needed.
  • After the planning stage, be an optimist. Give people hope so that they continue even in the face of hardship.