Leadership Secrets of Great Presidents for Business, Part Three: Theodore Roosevelt

Few presidents embody the American spirit better than Theodore Roosevelt. As an iconic leader his example still informs us over a century after he left office. His determination, individualism and spirit of competition was infused into everything he did in life and in the White House.

For leaders in business a few of Roosevelt’s insights can reveal what many have already identified as key traits for success. Roosevelt pioneered many of these, and so it is no wonder why business success is often reminiscent of the success he symbolized as the Chief Executive of the United States of America.

Roosevelt believed deeply in opportunity as a key to success. Free competition in the market meant the best ideas, the best products and the best companies succeeded. Inside a business, equality of opportunity, free from biases, is important to insure that the best ideas, the best people and the best leaders can emerge to benefit the company as a whole.


This is the third installment of the Leadership Secrets of Great Presidents series from HistoryDojo. Please find the first installment on George Washington here, and the second installment on Abraham Lincoln here.


Roosevelt said:

“I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope — the door of opportunity — is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color. Such an attitude would, according to my convictions, be fundamentally wrong.”[1]

Fremont College of Business wrote an interesting article that reflects Roosevelt’s view of tolerance and opportunity in business.

Today’s business environment benefits greatly from a culture of collaboration, both internally and externally. Technology has created new methods for communicating and collaborating in today’s workforce, and the Internet makes collaborating with others easy to do at a low cost. If you can create an environment where everyone can contribute ideas or help increase sales, collaboration will quickly add to your bottom line. [2]

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In his day, Roosevelt was facing problems created by unscrupulous business practices. He broke up larger monopolies and regulated national industries. His progressive vision for business garnered him critics who claimed he was interfering with the success of the national interest. His response was to describe how business and national interest intersected for the common good.


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This focus shows how real business leadership needs to take a larger perspective on the role the company plays in the local, state and even national interest. Good corporate citizens are important, because bad corporate practices make the public have little faith in the value of business to improve their lives.

“Our aim is not to do away with corporations; on the contrary, these big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism … We are not hostile to them; we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”[3]

Bill Green, author and CEO wrote about this for INC.com and for his book, All In.

Earning the respect of your team without having to remind them of your seniority is the definition of integrity. 

Too many leaders lean on their titles as a crutch. They excuse their own behavior by saying, “I’m the founder. I’m the CEO. I’m the manager,” instead of earning people’s respect by acting and behaving appropriately. This is a concept I talk about at length in my book, All In

Integrity is about more than just doing the right thing. It’s about standing for something bigger than yourself, and setting a precedent within your business. After all, a company’s culture is a reflection of its leaders.

Which means it all starts with you. [4]

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Roosevelt saw success defined differently than profit. It is an all too common mistake to see a business as a success mere because of “the bottom line.” While meeting goals and watching costs and profits is an obvious must for any business, leaders know that a successful business is one that seeks a goal larger in significance than just dollars and cents. Great leaders aspire to higher standards, as Roosevelt said, than just material well being.

It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself.”[5]

In his book Million Dollar Habits, business expert and lecturer Brian Tracy describes one of the most important standards for business leadership:

In business, the most important long-term vision you can have for your organization is to “be the best.” Identify a quality of your product or service that’s relevant and important to your customers and then focus all the energies and creativity of your organization toward achieving superior performance in that area.

Developing the habit of thinking in terms of making your business the very best in your industry is an essential quality of visionary leadership.

Without this commitment to excellence, you’ll automatically default to mediocre or merely satisfactory performance. [6]

It is exactly as Teddy Roosevelt described. Seeking to be the best is a higher standard than mere material well being. Great leaders hone their products, services and relationships to focus on what they do best, and then seek to do it better.

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Learning from the mistakes and successes of the past was an important character trait that Roosevelt promoted as president. Business leaders must also try to take an honest look at the past, both in the last quarter but also in the last year or even beyond, in order to gage the success of plans laid for the future.

Roosevelt said:

“It is of little use for us to pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which in other crises enabled the men of that day to meet those crises.”[7]

Humility is also a trait that Roosevelt embodied, although he was not famous for it. He is more commonly understood to be a braggart, with a loud and boisterous personality. However, in terms of leadership, he recognized that credit needs to be assigned as deserved. He was honorable in acknowledging the credit when it was belonging to another. He believed in the nobility of action, and the acknowledgement of that bold action.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”[8]

In business, it is important to credit the one this is actually, “in the arena.” As a leader, acknowledging the hard work and risk taking of others is essential to good team building and management. Teams perform poorly when the team members do not believe their actions matter or are ignored. Roosevelt called out the actions of others. Business leaders need to acknowledge the efforts of their teams, even if the team fall short. Don’t reward failure, but don’t punish or humiliate those who took the risks and tried to do the best for the company.


 

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[1] https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Advanced-Search?r=1&st1=2&t1=Roosevelt%2C+Theodore%2C+1858-1919

[2] https://fremont.edu/6-business-leadership-skills-for-business-success/

[3] http://stateoftheunion.onetwothree.net/texts/19021202.html

[4] https://www.inc.com/bill-green/the-8-characteristics-of-an-effective-business-leader.html

[5] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Citizenship_in_a_Republic

[6] https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/299294

[7] http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/new-nationalism-speech/

[8] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Citizenship_in_a_Republic

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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