Leading by Principles and Ideals

Teddy Roosevelt National Park is an inspiring place. The views go for miles and the landscape is like no other with colorful buttes and deep canyons providing unrivaled beauty. Having just returned from this beautiful park, I felt compelled to learn more about the man, leader and President we fondly call Teddy Roosevelt. He only spent a portion of his life in the North Dakota area but describes it as the romance of his life and gives his personal growth achieved in those years the credit for catapulting him to the presidency eventually. Perhaps no leader before or since has been more diverse. He started with a life of privilege and was considered a “weak physical” young man. He established himself as a man of the people during his stint in North Dakota, ranching and hunting, becoming a physical presence. He became a warrior, assembling the “First Volunteer Calvary” to fight Cuba in the Spanish-American War with his roughriders. And he became a President of the people, during which he strived to work for the type of people he knew in North Dakota, hard-working, courageous men and women. With a blend of courage and compassion, and a focus on progress and setting new standards, he accomplished much. Here are 10 Theodore Roosevelt Leadership Lessons postulated by James Strock.

  1. Leaders Are Created, Not Born. Roosevelt believed that leadership was an ongoing project of self-creation. “If I have anything at all resembling genius, it is the gift for leadership….to tell the truth, I like to believe that, by what I have accomplished without great gifts, I may be a source of encouragement to Americans.”
  2. Courage is the Foundational Virtue. He lived in tough times. The brutality of the Civil War was recent and raw. Particularly in the west, physical courage was a requirement and moral courage important to standing for ideals in times of service. “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to mean horses and gun fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
  3. Action, Action and Still More Action. Considered a man of action, never comfortable on defense, he led from the front whether in war or in debate. He was willing to take risks to make things happen. As I recently shared with a client, identified and manageable risk is less risky than the risk of doing nothing. Roosevelt liked to be in the driver’s seat. “Whatever I think is right for me to do, I do. I do the things that I believe ought to be done. And when I make up my mind to do a thing, I act.”
  4. Put Your Team Ahead of Yourself. While leading “front the front” he placed those he was serving before himself. The Rough Riders were committed to him for life as a result. “No man has a right to ask or accept any service unless under changed conditions he would feel that he could keep his entire self-respect while rendering.”
  5. Leaders are Learners. Roosevelt was a curious man and a life-long student who said reading was a disease for him. While referring to classroom and formal education, Roosevelt believed they created many he called “educated ineffectives”. Rather, Roosevelt’s example combined the life of ideas and the life of action, central to his concept of self-creation as a leader. “As soon as any man has ceased to be able to learn, his usefulness as a teacher is at an end. When he himself can’t learn, he has reached the stage where other people can’t learn from him.”
  6. Bringing History to Life, Create the Future. Not only a politician but an avid historian, he along with close friends like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, would often apply historical examples to contemporary issues. “There is nothing cheaper than to sneer at and belittle the great men and great deeds and great thoughts of a bygone time—unless it is to magnify them and ascribe preposterous and impossible virtues to the period.”
  7. Maintain Open Channels with Adversaries. Roosevelt was a man of action but used a variety of means to achieve his outcomes. He was open to listening to opposing views. It brings tremendous advantages—from learning new things, adapting one’s point of view to a position that is acceptable to a broader audience, or even just being better informed about the oppositions objections so as to better be able to influence them.  “If my virtue ever becomes so frail that it will not stand meeting men of whom I thoroughly disapprove, but who are active in official life and whom I must encounter, why shall I go out of possibilities and become an anchorite. Whether I see these men or do not see them, if I do for them anything improper then I am legitimately subject to criticism; but only a fool will criticize me because I see them.”
  8. Keep Commitments. Politicians especially, and people in general, are not always keen to keep their word. Teddy Roosevelt was known for keeping his. He declined numerous requests to repeal his promise, made impulsively on election night in 1904, not to seek re-election in 1908. Keeping his word was vital to earning trust of those he cared about and served. “It is a peculiar gratification to me to have owed my election…above all to Abraham Lincoln’s plain people; to the folk who worked hard on the farm, in shop, or on the railroads, or who owned little stores, little businesses which they managed themselves. I would literally, not figuratively, rather cut off my right hand than forfeit by any improper act of mind the trust and regard of these people…I shall endeavor not to merit their disapproval by any act inconsistent with the ideal they have formed of me.”
  9. Family First. Roosevelt was a dedicated family man. He was known as an attentive father and husband. “There are many kinds of success worth having. It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful businessman, or railroad man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor, or a writer or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fight regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”
  10. Be Authentic, Live Your Values. Roosevelt was the author of his character and lived by his own high standards and values. “Most of all I believe whatever value my service may have, comes even more from what I am than from what I do.”

Do you have clear leadership guidelines by which you live? Are you still creating your leadership culture? Not only are Teddy Roosevelt’s guidelines timeless, they cause us to think about what character we are self-creating. Would enjoy hearing your top leadership principles. Please share.

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