The Courage to Be Yourself

Leadership Lessons from an Outspoken First Lady

The passing of former First Lady Betty Ford on July 8th of this year has received extensive coverage in my local media market because I live in Mrs. Ford’s home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the past several weeks, there have been many TV and newspaper tributes to this remarkable woman who made her home from 1920 – 1948 in what many call The Furniture City.

As I read the news articles and listened to Cokie Roberts eulogize Mrs. Ford, I heard these traits mentioned over and over again:

  • Candor
  • Courage
  • Sense of duty
  • Bringing the “unmentionable” into the open
  • Playfulness (see photo of her dancing on the table in the White House Cabinet Room)

These characterizations illuminate the fact that even though Mrs. Ford may not have been a “leader” in the traditional sense during her husband’s time in office, she nonetheless was viewed as someone who was very influential.

The one red thread that has run through all of the retrospectives is this: Betty Ford was herself no matter what the consequences. Outspoken and sometimes controversial, she was “authentic” long before it was a leadership buzzword.

Just the other night I discovered a book of essays called The Right Words at the Right Time. In this book, there is a first-person account by Mrs. Ford on her two guiding ideas for dealing with life’s challenges.

She called these two ideas the “bookends of how I approach things.” The first idea was “if there is something over which you have control and to which you have committed, you must do it to the best of your abilities.” The second idea was “Whenever something unexpected happens over which you have no control, you must have the faith to trust that something greater than yourself will guide you.” After reading this passage, I believe that these bookends must have provided the bedrock for Mrs. Ford’s ability to be herself.

Peering for a moment into the mindset of a former First Lady is fascinating. The Fords were reluctant inhabitants of the White House because they were there due to a very tumultuous time in our country. Nevertheless, Betty Ford faced the challenge with aplomb. No doubt, she called upon these guiding bookends on a daily basis during those White House years.

Tireless advocate. Honest. Trailblazing. These are some of the words that people have been attributing to former First Lady Betty Ford.  .  . a woman who mostly definitely was a leader.



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