Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership

Theodore Roosevelt


Theodore Roosevelt was more than just the 26th president of the United States. Sickly as a child, he won fame as a cowpuncher, Rough Rider, and hero of the common people. Roosevelt was also a writer, historian, explorer, big game hunter, soldier, cowboy, conservationist, ranchman, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Lesson No. 1: Share a Vision

When I was growing up, Theodore Roosevelt symbolized the triumph of the mind over the limitations of the body. He was the first famous person whose disabilities I became aware of. Theodore Roosevelt suffered from asthma, a weak physique, and poor vision. Yet this sickly child won fame as a cowboy, a soldier, and a hunter. I did not speak until I was four years of age. I had difficulty walking. Like Theodore Roosevelt, I also suffered from poor vision. I visualized that I would become a great success like Theodore Roosevelt. It is no accident that we have become successful. We were both fortunate in having very supportive parents who visualized our success. They believed that we had no limitations, only unlimited opportunities. They mirrored success. This is the gift that parents can give us.

Theodore Roosevelt had a vision for America, "The young giant of the West stands on a continent and grasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race." In 1910, he dubbed his political philosophy as "the New Nationalism."

Lesson No. 2: Have High Self-esteem

Roosevelt's youth differed sharply from that of the log cabin Presidents. He was born in New York City in 1858 into a wealthy family, but he too struggled against ill health and in his triumph became an advocate of the strenuous life. His father, wielded great influence over his son, instilling in him a determination to strengthen his frail, asthmatic body; to follow a stern Christian moral code, and to enjoy the life of the mind.

To conquer his handicaps, Teddy trained in a gym and became a lightweight boxer at Harvard. He set out for Dakota Territory to hunt Buffalo and stayed to run a cattle ranch and hold his own in the trigger-happy Bad Lands. It was a real triumph for the "four-eyed tenderfoot."

Back in the East as a Civil Service reformer and crime-busting Police Commissioner, young Roosevelt carried his rough-and-tumble ways into politics. When war came with Spain, he was McKinley's Assistant Navy Secretary. Itching for battle, he led a charge of cavalry Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. Now famous, he became Governor of New York.

Lesson No. 3: Take Responsibility for Your Actions

Theodore's father told him it was up to him to become physically fit. When he reached ten, his father took him aside: "Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body...You must make your body." Through clenched teeth, the boy immediately vowed: "I'll make my body." His mother watched him work out every day at a local gym until his father installed a home gymnasium for Theodore to achieve this goal. More than fifty years later, in his memoirs, he still vividly recalled the humiliation of being held down by one hand during a fight. TR was ready to heed his father's counsel. To conquer his weaknesses, Teddy worked out in the gym every day. By taking responsibility to overcome his limitations, he pushed himself toward unlimited opportunities

Thanks to his parents' example and encouragement, Theodore used his inner strength to overcome his limitations. He became a hunter, a hiker, and a sportsman. TR became one of the leading lightweight boxers at Harvard College as well as placing consistently near the top of his classes. All this helped to remove the limitations that prevented him from succeeding in life. Give yourself unlimited opportunities.

Lesson No. 4: Be a Lifelong Learner

The Roosevelts encouraged their son in his quest for knowledge. At the age of seven, Theodore developed a serious interest in zoology. The parents paid a professional taxidermist to teach young Theodore to stuff the animals he would shoot. More than one housemaid quit she found a dissected mouse in the refrigerator.

"The young man," recalled Arthur Cutler, one of his tutors, "never seemed to know what idleness was." Even in his free time, Theodore pored over books of literature and science. He was blessed with a photographic memory, enabling him to remember completely everything he read. Home-schooled because of childhood illness, he graduated with honors from Harvard College. Roosevelt read an average of three books a day whether campaigning for president or exploring the Amazon River. Leaders are readers. Be a self-learner. Grow yourself.

Lesson No. 5: Be a Risk-taker

Failure is a great teacher. Theodore Roosevelt declared: "The only man who makes no mistake is the man who does nothing." Theodore Roosevelt elaborated in another speech, "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, then to rank with those poor spirits who neither suffer much nor enjoy much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

Western ranchmen impressed by Roosevelt's fearlessness and fairness elected him president of the local Stockman's Association and made him a deputy sheriff of Billings County. On March 24, 1886, three thieves stole a boat from the Elkhorn Ranch. With two ranch hands, Roosevelt built a flat-bottomed scow and pursued the thieves down the icy Little Missouri River. He insisted that the thieves be brought back for a fair trial instead of being lynched on the spot despite the difficulties.

Family, friends, and superiors all implored Roosevelt to remain in the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in which he had done so much to prepare the navy for the Spanish-American War. He was almost forty years old, nearly blind without his glasses, and with six children and a wife recuperating from a near-fatal illness. Theodore Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill leading the Rough Riders made him into a national hero and helped him become president of the United States.

Lesson No. 6: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

"'Don't bluster. Don't flourish a revolver, and never draw unless you intend to shoot,' declared Roosevelt around 1900 on foreign policy. This was a 'cowboy' version of an African proverb that Roosevelt admired: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." On June 2, 1898 at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt told the graduating class what George Washington had advised, "To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace." No wars took place while he was president.

Lesson No. 7: Be a Great Communicator

Roosevelt considered the White House a "bully pulpit" to mobilize public support, dramatize the issues, and preach his version of the gospel. In the process, he made the presidency an active participant -- if not the commanding component -- in making national policy. He had a passionate sense of moral right and a fierce need to convey it to others.

Before the Rough Rider's elevation to the White House, presidents sent messages to Congress only once a year or in times of national crisis. Roosevelt regularly went to the public his opinions and priorities known. While custom dictated presidents did not leave the continental United States during their term of office, he went to Panama in 1906 to inspect the progress of the Canal.

Roosevelt contributed to the making of the modern presidency by his celebrity status. Already a dashing figure to the American public because of his exploits in the West and Cuba, he turned the widespread curiosity about himself, his activities, and his equally hyper-active family into political assets. Roosevelt reached over his political opponents to convince the great American people to follow his lead.

Master of Publicity

He had a way of "slapping the public on the back with a bright idea," said one editor. To be successful, Roosevelt believed that a president must project a personal force that inspired and influenced people." Realizing that newspapers faced the immense problem of filing their columns on Monday after a dull weekend, he timed his statements so that they would appear in the Monday morning newspapers when there was less competition for public attention.

Roosevelt knew how to cultivate the press and was a master of publicity. He used the trial balloon and off-the-record remarks to test out ideas and policies. "If a proposal was shot down, he was free to deny ever having considered it." Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), page 421

Roosevelt discerned that by cultivating journalists, he could overcome the impact of the editorial pages. More than any other chief executives before him, he comprehended that anything coming out of the White House was news and he capitalized on this fact. Nothing the president did escape the notice of the public; he made sure of that.

Lesson No. 8: Do What is Right, Not What is Expedient

Theodore Roosevelt became popular politically as Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner, Governor, and President because the public perceived him on their side. They felt that he was willing to stand up to the corrupt politicians and big businessmen that dominated their lives. His presidential administration, the first to receive a nickname, was known as "The Square Deal."

As a Police Commissioner, he took control of the police department, reorganized it, fired corrupt policemen, and used to walk through the city at night looking for policemen asleep on the job. When journalist Jacob Riis suggested to Roosevelt that he might someday become president, TR replied that he should drop the idea at once. If he became conscious of this, he would lose the courage to make the right decisions and this, in turn, would deny him the presidential nomination someday.

Lesson No. 9: Know Your Limitations

In the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt organized the "Rough Riders, " the first volunteer regiment to be organized for service in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt was smart enough to realize that he lacked adequate military experience. He got the battle-tested Colonel Leonard Wood to be put in charge of training the regiment. Roosevelt would inspire the men. On more than one occasion Colonel Wood chewed him out for not acting professionally and Roosevelt admitted he deserved it. When the soldiers charged up San Juan Hill, they were well-prepared. This action made Roosevelt a hero and two of his superiors recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Lesson No. 10: Have Compassion

The Teddy Bear, loved by children in every part of the world, was born in November 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt, hunting grizzly bears, came upon a bear cub that some members of his hunting party had captured and tied to a tree. The President refused to shoot the cub and insisted on turning the bear loose. The cartoonist, Berryman, of the Washington Post read of the episode and drew a cartoon of Teddy and the bear. Little did he imagine that toymakers across the country would seize upon the idea and that thereafter the Teddy Bear would find a place in the hearts of young and old alike.

Roosevelt in his inaugural address proclaimed, "we have duties to others and duties to ourselves, and we shirk neither...Toward all other nations, large and small, our attitude must be one of cordial and sincere friendship...But justice and generosity in a nation... count most when shown not by the weak but by the strong." Roosevelt pressed for programs as president and governor to improve working conditions.

Lesson No. 11: Be a Decision-maker

Roosevelt viewed that the President as a "steward of the people." He should take whatever action necessary for the public good unless expressly forbidden by law or the Constitution. Numerous long-standing precedents about what a president should and should not do were rendered obsolete by Roosevelt. He transformed the power, the scope, and the possibilities of the presidency. He intervened in labor disputes on the side of labor and doubled the acreage of the national parks to protect our natural resources. " I did not usurp power," he wrote, "but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power."

Lesson No. 12: Lead a Balanced Life

Roosevelt made time for his family and friends. He set aside time to play with his children every day. He had them so well-trained that they would interrupt important meetings to remind him that their time had come. Roosevelt organized a "tennis cabinet" of his closest friends to play on the newly laid out tennis court behind the White House. He liked horse riding with his wife. He found time to box, wrestle, bird watching, and even write a few books while President.

Summary and Conclusion

Theodore Roosevelt preached the strenuous life, lived the strenuous life, and challenged the nation to achieve the strenuous life. Roosevelt was a man of action who lived a well-balanced life -- having time for his family, the nation, and the world. Above all, he had fun being president of the United States.

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