In her salute to Women’s History Month, Laura Schwartz shares five lessons from her signature keynote on leadership, “Lead First”
As the White House Director of Events for 8 years, I spent more time in the White House than my own house. The East Room, once called the public audience room, is the largest in the house listing at 2960 square feet. With its mahogany doors, gilded cornice work, federal style furniture and paintings of the USA’s First President and First Lady, George and Martha Washington, it is easily identified with the White House. I identify with it my most valuable lessons in life and work. I reflect on today with my top 5 lessons from the East Room:
Lesson 1: Nothing is beneath any title
The 1st First Lady to live in the White House was Abigail Adams, the wife of our second President John Adams. Since the East Room was the largest and warmest room in the house at the time Mrs. Adams used it to hang laundry. Here we have our 1st First lady in residence who was always being lauded in the social pages for her glamorous parties and wardrobe …. and she hung laundry. This teaches us all that no matter your title, you do what needs to be done –even if that’s hanging the laundry.
Lesson 2: Someone is always there
Ghosts of President Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and First Lady Abigail Adams are among the most popular to be seen or heard by other Presidential families, visiting heads of state and others following their White House tenure. First Lady Abigail Adams ghost has been recalled on several separate occasions as wearing a white nightgown and cap walking with her hands outstretched (as if carrying a basket of laundry) hurriedly towards the East Room. This taught me that it is important to realize that someone is always there – even when we think we are alone; mentors are all around us. If we take a moment to look up from our struggling project, our questions about the industry or our difficult decisions, we are surrounded by professionals and friends in and outside of our offices to ask for advice or discuss similar trials or triumphs.
Lesson 3: Your job may be 9-5, but your career is 24/7
The White House is the ultimate home office, but for President Thomas Jefferson’s secretaries, so was the East Room. President Jefferson was served by his private secretaries Meriwether Lewis and Lewis Harvie whose offices where in the East Room. They were working so much that President Jefferson ordered sailcloth to be delivered to divide the East Room in half so the northern half could be used as offices and the southern half as a bedroom. When you look at Meriwether’s subsequent leadership of the Lewis and Clark Expedition you can easily realize how when you approach your “job” not as 9-5 but your “career” as 24/7 it pays off.
Lesson 4: Some days you have to fight
President Theodore Roosevelt was known as a burly, cowboy of a man, a rough rider – but in actuality when he was a child suffered from asthma and poor health. To help young Teddy overcome physical weakness, his father hired a boxing coach to strengthen him physically and emotionally, following which Teddy became a life-long boxing enthusiast. President Roosevelt was known to have held boxing matches in the East Room. Even though some days are tough, you just have to fight and get through. That’s what President Roosevelt did and that’s what we can all do everyday no matter the opponent.
Lesson 5: You have to focus under fire
First Lady Dolly Madison was at home preparing dinner when her husband, President James Madison, alerted the White House that the British were on their way to burn it down. Instead of running for her clothes or other personal items, Dolly ran to the East Room to save the portrait of founding Father George Washington. That painting is the only original item remaining in the White House today. Dolly shows us that we must remain focused in our every day both personally and professionally and no matter what the “fires” are that burn around us, threaten our business, come up on our path…we must remain focused and we will prevail.
What is the East Room in your life? What lessons has it taught you?