The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Two thumbs up! 

This book is one in a trilogy written by Edmund Morris about the former US President and is not for the faint of heart.  At 780 pages, it took me six weeks to read, but the time and effort were worth it.  This volume starts at the beginning of his life and ends when Roosevelt assumes his role as Vice President under President McKinley.   

The name Teddy Roosevelt conjures up the image of a healthy, robust man who led a group of ruffians during the Spanish American War.  I was surprised to learn that Roosevelt was extremely sick with asthma and other respiratory illnesses until he was 20 years old.  Despite his illness (that often left him bedridden for days), he pushed himself (with urging from his father) to become strong through exercise, hiking and climbing mountains in the US as well as Europe.  His years of persistence paid off and he was able to overcome his illnesses.  

Roosevelt faced tremendous grief at an early age as a young man.  His father died when he was a teen.  His mother died a few years later.  Tragically, he lost his mother-in-law and young wife within 24 hours of each other.  His wife had just given birth to their daughter Alice. 

Roosevelt was a prolific writer on topics such as the Navy, the Wild West and he also wrote several biographies.  Despite his notoriety as a “big game” hunter, Roosevelt, loved animals and we have him to thank for the preservation of our national parks.   

While Roosevelt possessed many fine leadership qualities, I felt there were three characteristics that set him apart: 1) his ability to learn 2) his ability to connect with people, and 3) his willingness to act.   

Roosevelt first entered politics at the age of 20 and was full of ideas and ego.  He had a win/lose mentality and felt that to compromise was to stray from his values.  Roosevelt was described as having a young boy’s brain in the sense that whatever was in his head came out of his mouth with no filtering.  This quality was both endearing and annoying and it got him into hot water – a lot.  Roosevelt took some hard knocks from his elders and the Press very early on in his career, but he learned from these mistakes.   

Roosevelt learned humility and on more than one occasion publicly acknowledged that he had erred.  He held himself and others accountable and was responsible for major Civil Service reform based on merit rather than political affiliation.  Roosevelt learned how to work within the political world while eradicating the waste and fraud that was prevalent at the time.  His reputation as a “troublemaker” for challenging the status quo is the reason he was nominated for Vice President.  The politicians in New York wanted him out of the way!   

Roosevelt had innate ability to connect with people.  He interacted with, befriended and learned from people of all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life -- the rancher, tradesman, academic, and successful businessman.  Roosevelt stood up for the working man while balancing the need for Capitalism to prosper.  He believed that women were as capable as men and in general, his views were viewed as too progressive at the time.  Roosevelt even connected with the Press by having transparent, authentic conversations.  As Police Commissioner of New York City and Governor of the state of New York, he invited the press to his office every day which helped him establish strong relationships even when differences of opinions existed. 

As with everyone, Roosevelt experienced career setbacks from time to time, but continuously moved forward.  He didn’t just talk; he was a man of action.  This characteristic is best explained by Mr. Roosevelt:  

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Learn.  Connect.  Act.  These traits sound simple, but Roosevelt honed these skills over time and surpassed leadership status.  He became a legend.   

One final note.  Mark, the person that gave me this book posed a good question to me.  “Do you think Morris' writing style enhances the story of Roosevelt's life or creates a barrier to understanding and accessibility?  From the senior executive perspective, is there value in this kind of writing and if so, why?”  It’s a good question.  When I read general leadership books, they get to the point and focus (repeatedly) on the principles they wish to communicate.  With a biography, the point is more nuanced.  While Morris calls out certain leadership traits, to get the true sense of Roosevelt’s character and leadership qualities you must follow his journey and see him in action, looking for consistency or inconsistency.  While it creates more work on the reader, I think the author’s approach is invaluable because it reflects life.  You get a true sense of others by interacting with or watching them in action over time.