Olds came from a traditional Anglo-Saxon protestant background. As the son of the president of Amherst College, Olds had been a brilliant mathematics student at Amherst. At Amherst he fell under the spell of the social work movement and the Social Gospel.
“Jolly, witty, informal” as well as “very fair-minded” and an accomplished cellist, Olds had been a minister, a teacher at Amherst, a researcher both for the federal government and the American Federation of Labor and a labor journalist before he met Franklin D. Roosevelt. As governor of New York Roosevelt appointed him to the New York State Power Authority. Olds believed in the “complete passing of the old order of capitalism”. A complete transformation of the American economic system was needed, which had to depart from its laissez-faire impetus and economic individualism. As an alternative, Olds favored consumer cooperation as the basis of a new American economic model. Complementary to his cooperative beliefs, Olds was “very much consumer oriented”.
Olds was a deeply religious and idealistic man, who after a long search for a worthy cause to give purpose to his life, had completely dedicated himself to the public power fight. Wide availability of cheap power was crucial, Olds felt, for the social well being of the mass of the American people. Olds believed that, together with regulation and community owned power generation and distribution, consumer cooperation was the key to a fair power policy. In 1927 Olds advocated the operating of all hydropower utilities as “giant consumer cooperatives”. Olds’ cooperative beliefs had come in the place of his earlier radicalism. Leland Olds was also a member of the Technical Alliance. In 1930/’31 he served as the “manager” of the American lecture tour of the famed Irish poet and cooperative propagandist Æ (George Russell). AE’s charisma convinced Olds even further of the necessity to organize all of society along cooperative lines.
In 1936, Olds served on Roosevelt's Presidential Inquiry Commission on Cooperative Enterprise in Europe. Roosevelt appointed him to the Federal Power Commission in June 1939, and he served as chairman of the commission from January, 1940 until 1949.
Under his leadership the Federal Power Commission successfully pressured electric utilities to extend power into neglected rural areas and to lower electricity rates in order to increase use. His insistence on enforcing the Natural Gas Act of 1938 raised the ire of the Texas Oil industry and led to the end of his career at the Federal Power Commission. Robert Caro's book Master of the Senate describes how Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Leland's re-appointment by orchestrating a McCarthyism style smear campaign. This involved utilizing the staff of the House Un-American Activities Committee to dig up old writings which were then taken out of context to falsely paint Leland as a communist. The subcommittee in charge of reappointment was stacked against Leland and coached by Johnson.