Leadership Takeaways from America's Most Powerful Women

I know I gave a cryptic counting-money gif to hint at today’s topic, but I’m going to push that til next week, because y’all I’ve just read this great book & I have to share.

Don’t you love it when you unexpectedly come across some great leadership lessons? That’s what’s happened to me this week. I. Could. Not. Stop. Highlighting.

Last weekend, spurred by a Kindle sale, I downloaded a book called Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by JB West. Now, someday, maybe in a future Secret Obsessions post, will we discuss my obsession with Presidents and the White House. But we haven’t got time to get into it today.

Upstairs is first-and-foremost a memoir of JB West, who was the Chief Usher at the White House. What is a chief usher, you ask? He runs the Executive Mansion as a building--all the household staff (about 100!), the furniture and household objects, renovations and maintenance, parties and events, receiving & placing guests in rooms, whether for receptions and meetings or dining and sleeping.

The Chief Usher works closely with the First Lady, because if you’re going to have something as simple as a luncheon or as complicated as a State Dinner or you want to decide where to put the Queen of England when she stays, it’s the First Lady who is approving menus, centerpieces, sleeping arrangements, entertainment, flow, table layout, china, etc.

West’s memoir covers the tenures of Presidents FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. As he worked with the First Ladies, his memoir brings out their individual styles and personalities, how they treat their staff and their husbands, how they use the house to further their politics.

But what really struck me as I read this book was the individual leadership styles of the First Ladies West describes. He didn’t mean to make this a leadership book, but I found myself learning from each one of them.

Here’s some highlights of what I learned from the women West brought to life in his book:

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Eleanor Roosevelt never walked anywhere. She ran.” West says. Coming from a background of old New England money, ER was a woman on the go and always in the process of getting things done. I’m most struck by how she leveraged her resources, by never eating a meal alone (never less than 12 for lunch!), often inviting random servicemen for lunch at the White House, and then when asked for a souvenir, gave them spoons with the official seal on them. (The Ushers stopped this by trading out those spoons for ones without a seal.) She leveraged her house by opening it to her friends -- West says “For the Roosevelts, the White House was like a Grand Hotel...Her house was full of guests, some of whom stayed for months, and some of whom she’d just picked up on the street. Sometimes she invited so many people, she forgot who they were.” All with the goal of connecting with people and forwarding her political goals. She was just as much a politician as her husband. And speaking of her husband, West notes that they “were as separate a married couple as I have ever seen.” FDR was busy running the country in his own way, and ER was running it in HER own way.

For the servants, she never gave an order more than once. You didn’t ask her follow-up questions. You didn’t ask her for clarification. By the time you came up with the question, she’d be gone, anyway, off to some other meeting or event. She was used to servants, and expected them to do their job excellently and quietly. They were a staff to be ordered.

When I read about ER, I want to have 1/10th the energy she did! And I admire the way she wasn’t apologetic about identifying and allocating her resources to achieve her goals. I understand as someone who had been around servants her whole life, she saw servants as a tool to be used to run her life and her house and nothing more,  but I always want to be more personal with the people who might serve me. And follow-up questions are allowed!

Bess Truman

West makes it a point to describe Bess and Harry Truman & their daughter as the most simple, down home, Midwest people you ever will meet. After the old-money New England life of the Roosevelts, the Trumans were literally the exact opposite. BT actively shied away from the press. The Trumans’ favorite people were the Trumans. They ate all their meals together. They played piano and hung out in the evenings. West said Mamie influenced Truman’s policies maybe more that ER had done, simply because they discussed everything. “They lived as simply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as in Independence, Missouri.” They treated the staff with respect. “When a butler or  doorman or usher would enter the room, the Trumans would introduce him to whoever happened to be sitting in the room, even if it were a King or a Prime Minister. They introduced all the staff to their visitors.”

One of my favorite parts of each account of the Ladies is how their families reacted to the finances of the house. Because, as West explains, Congress’s budget allocates meals for the staff and servants, but the President’s family pays for the meals of the President, the family, and any guests. There is no budget for official entertaining, so the budget for State Dinners often comes out of the President’s travel budget. With the unlimited resources of the Roosevelts, this wasn’t a problem, but the Trumans simply “couldn’t afford to live at the White House.”  Therefore BT would go over the household accounts with a fine-tooth comb, using post-War ration coupons and buying groceries wholesale. (Subsequent stories about the penny-pinching ways of the Kennedys and Johnsons are hilarious.)

That hits on the thing that I really admired about BT: how she paid attention to details. When she first came, she desperately wanted to get rid of the “shabby” Roosevelt furniture, but didn’t have the money to replace it. What she could get rid of, however, was dust. West describes the housekeeping staff as less than efficient, spending their time turning down beds while there are cobwebs in the corner. BT realigned their priorities: spend your time cleaning the cobwebs and I can turn down my own bed, thanks. She didn’t get caught up in the fanciness of it all. Additionally, West says that, because she really spent time and conversation with her husband, she influenced all his presidential decisions. This reminds me to always be connecting & conversing with people who I want to influence.

Mamie Eisenhower

Guys, I think Mamie Eisenhower is my favorite. She loved the spotlight. She knew people wanted to see her, and she made sure she was right in front. She knew people wanted to meet her and she wanted to meet them. She was intensely interested in everyone, especially the staff. West said his wife met Mamie for 10 minutes and afterward said, “She asked about a hundred questions about us, does she do that with everyone?” And the answer was yes. Mamie knew the names of everyone’s kids and bought them all Christmas presents. Speaking of Christmas, she was the first one to really (over)decorate the White House for Christmas and all major holidays. She never took a meeting before 10 and every meeting she had before noon, she was sitting up in her bed with curlers in her hair. She and Ike slept in the same bed (something not done by the past 2 presidents) to which she remarked “Our new bed finally got here, and now I can reach over and pat Ike on his old bald head anytime I want to!”

Mamie wanted everyone to have a good time, but she also wanted everything to be correct. She banned the servants from using the elevators and banned the staff from using the mansion as a walkway between the East and West wings. Once when West answered the phone “West speaking,” she said, “Never call yourself ‘West….You are Mister West, and you must insist that everyone refer to you in that way. You must establish your authority with everyone. You are not a servant.’” Once a maid addressed the maitre d’ by his last name and Mamie said to her “you’re to address him as Charles.”

I want to have Mamie’s ability to connect with people and make sure they are having fun. She kept the established orders of society and managed to do it without distancing anyone. She wasn’t born into politics but she really adapted and thrived. I don’t want to be as formal as she was, but I always want to afford everybody the respect due to them, no matter who they are.

Jackie Kennedy

West describes Jackie as one person in public (cold, formal, distant) and another in private (intensely funny, informal, and playful). She oversaw an intense redecoration of the White House, acquiring President-related antiques. (You can watch her 1962 televised tour of the White House on YouTube.) She wanted the White House to be a great museum to the country. But she was also very keen on making it a home for her family: a place her husband could relax at the end of the day. She filled the parties with artists, poets, old friends--anything but politicians. She had the staff install a trampoline in the backyard for her kids. She played with the kids on the floor. And between the hours of noon and 2pm, absolutely no one except the family was allowed on the second floor (where the family’s rooms are.) And that is because Nap Time was sacred.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this book that Presidents have in common, it is a hard-and-fast nap time. Every single president from Truman to Johnson took a daily nap.


I learned from Jackie that I want to spend as much as my energy on my family than anyone else. Jackie was first and foremost a wife and mother, and made sure her family was taken care of. And I want to have her humor!

Lady Bird Johnson

When Lady Bird first gets to the White House, she is a overly-dominated wife of a very loud and forceful politician.  However, when she discovers and really dives into her nationwide beautification project, she finds her place right alongside her husband with a strong purpose. In the meantime, they run a constantly-rotating house of personal guests, governors, and old Texas friends.

The way Lady Bird worked inspired me. She would only work in rooms with one door to limit her privacy. I think we can all stand to be reminded to be mindful of who has access and “a door” to what we are working on.  And she employed a two-woman dream team for her advisors. The First Lady was so successful in a large part because of these two women, and that reminds me to find the right people to come alongside a project.

Pat Nixon

Mr. West retired shortly after the Nixons came into office, but even in the short 2 months, there is something I learned from PN. West tells this story about how she called down to give her dinner order and said, “Richard and the girls will have steak in the family dining room. I’ll just have a bowl of cottage cheese in my bedroom.” He goes on to tell how the White House had all this food for all these magnificent state dinners, but not one ounce of cottage cheese. So, they had to go out and get some at a very late hour when almost no grocery stores were open.

This tells me: keep it simple. People will sometimes be shocked by your simplicity, but keep it simple. Don’t make a thing complicated until it has to be complicated. We got enough complicated stuff.

Hope you enjoyed this dive into the White House! And, if you couldn’t tell, I recommend the book. You can get it here.

Wait, what about the men?

West DOES talk about the Presidents in his book, but gets more into their personalities and not at all into their politics. But if you want to know what the Presidents are like, I think he best sums it up in this passage (it’s during the Johnson section):

“I saw Missouri all through Harry Truman--plain as the plains, straightforward and open, and stubborn as a mule; Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy had the quick repartee, the urbane, graceful, wealthy eastern manner; Dwight Eisenhower was so military you could imagine brass buttons and polished boots even when he wasn’t wearing them; with a “by golly” or two, Kansas flashed through his smile. It was evident that Lyndon Johnson had grown up in the wide open spaces...When he swept his arm around the room, you could tell he hadn’t spent much time cramped in subways, afraid to touch the next fellow.”