The Great Depression of the 1930s: An Overlooked Landscape Of Leadership

My work in preparing for my 3rd Leadership Now Seminar (August 29th, 10a-1p) has produced a revelation for me. The Great Depression is a vastly overlooked, under-utilized source of leadership for Americans in the early 21st century. So much so, in fact, that I think it’s a travesty.

Search for books on current leadership, management, and business strategy. You’ll encounter hundreds that draw lessons from successful companies, failed companies, and everything in between. But you won’t find anything on companies that either endured the 1930s–the worst extended economic trough in American history–or actually thrived in the decade.

I’m amazed at why more people haven’t done what I’m doing: looking at this horrendous period of economic performance to find those handful of stories about leaders who amazingly turned disaster into triumph. And yes, they do exist.

If you see any references to leadership during the 1930s, chances are it’s about Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1933 to 1945. I’ve even done a session on his leadership experience.

I think I know the answer as to why we don’t learn from leadership in the Great Depression. Roosevelt himself is part of the reason. His is a very large image, a dominating presence. From the standpoint of written history, Roosevelt overshadows most of everything else. Linked to Roosevelt is the fact that the 1930s are often recalled as precursor to World War II. And from a leadership perspective, it’s World War II that tends to capture any attention given to this era.

There’s one more reason, I suspect. We don’t tend to think of anyone succeeding during the Great Depression. Everyone stood in a bread line. Everyone lost their job, their house. Everyone had dirt smudged on their faces, their eyes blank with despair. 

That’s not the whole story, though, and thus my passion to show you the very valuable insights of those who succeeded. Some companies, organizations, and entities thrived during the 1930s. Some found in their struggle against incredible odds that they could do and in fact actually did things well. And why wouldn’t you look for these jewels scattered in the dust of the Depression years?

We’ve missed the boat. An important learning opportunity has gone unnoticed. I aim to rectify that on August 29.