Theodore Roosevelt Jr.: Good Leaders Get Out of the Way

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was an American statesman, author, explorer, soldier, and naturalist, who served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He also served as the 25th Vice President of the United States from March to September 1901 and as the 33rd Governor of New York from 1899 to 1900. As a leader of the Republican Party during this time, he became a driving force for the Progressive Era in the United States in the early 20th century. His face is depicted on Mount Rushmore, alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

Roosevelt was born a sickly child with debilitating asthma, but he successfully overcame his physical health problems by embracing a strenuous lifestyle. He integrated his exuberant personality, vast range of interests, and world-famous achievements into a “cowboy” persona defined by robust masculinity. Home-schooled, he began a lifelong naturalist avocation before attending Harvard College. His book, The Naval War of 1812 (1882), established his reputation as both a learned historian and as a popular writer. Upon entering politics, he became the leader of the reform faction of Republicans in New York’s state legislature. Following the near-simultaneous deaths of his wife and mother, he escaped to a cattle ranch in the Dakotas. Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley, but resigned from that post to lead the Rough Riders during the Spanish–American War. Returning a war hero, he was elected Governor of New York in 1898. After the death of Vice President Garret Hobart, the New York state party leadership convinced McKinley to accept Roosevelt as his running mate in the 1900 election, moving Roosevelt to the prestigious but powerless role of vice president. Roosevelt campaigned vigorously and the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won a landslide victory based on a platform of peace, prosperity, and conservatism.

While Roosevelt is known for many quotes, one of his best about leadership is: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

Roosevelt recognized that leaders don’t exist to do all the jobs themselves, nor do they exist to lord over those who they choose to complete a task. One of the best qualities in a leader is the ability to recognize the best in others and give them the opportunity to put their skills and knowledge to the task. A good leader chooses the best possible candidates and organizes them, advisers them, keeps them together as a team, and facilitates an environment in which all can be their best.

Jody Victor discusses Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was born into an old, prosperous Dutch family in New York City on October 27, 1858. His father was a glass importer and was a big influence in his life. Theodore’s father instilled in him a determination to strengthen his frail, asthmatic body; to follow a strong Christian moral code; and to enjoy the life of the mind. As President, Theodore was quoted:

“There is not in all America a more dangerous trait than the deification of mere smartness unaccompanied by any sense of moral responsibility.”

Roosevelt was educated at Harvard, where he graduated in 1880, and divided his time between books and sport, excelling in both. A year after graduation he served in the New York Assembly, where he supported civil-service reform and legislation to benefit working people. During the 1880’s he divided his life between politics and writing. In all, his lifetime literary output included 26 books, over a thousand magazine articles, and thousands of speeches and letters.

In 1884, because if ill health and the death of his wife, Roosevelt abandoned politics for some time. He invested part of the fortune he inherited from his father in a cattle ranch in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory. He expected to remain in the west for many years. He became a passionate hunter and an ardent believer in the wild outdoor life that restored his health and strength. Just two years later he returned to New York City, married again, and once more plunged into politics.

President Benjamin Harrison, after his election in 1889, appointed him as a member of the Civil Service Commission. Later he became president of the Commission. He resigned that office in 1895 to become president of New York City’s Board of Police Commissioners.

President William McKinley asked him to serve as assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt used this office to prepare the nation for war with Spain. Once the Spanish-American War came in 1898, he went to Cuba as lieutenant of a regiment of volunteer cavalry, the Rough Riders, which he helped raise and organize from the hunters and cowboys of the west. He won great fame as the leader of the Rough Riders.

With his sudden fame and national reputation he was encouraged to run for the Governor of New York. He invested his two-year administration with vigorous and businesslike characteristics, which were his hallmark. He once again championed civil service and approved several bills supportive of labor and social reform. He backed a measure to tax corporation franchises. He would have run for re-election in 1900, but instead he was chosen to run as William McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate in his bid for a second Presidential term.

Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901, after the death by assassination of President McKinley. In 1902 he was disturbed, as were others, by the growing power of the large corporations and ordered the Justice Department to bring suit against a railroad monopoly under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. This launched a “trust-busting” crusade against big business that carried over in to his second term, which he won in 1904. During his second term he quickened the pace of his progressive ideas. He advanced the cause of conservation. He supported the Newlands Bill on reclamation and irrigation and backed the Chief Forrester in adding to the national forests and reserved lands for public use. “The object of government is the welfare of the people… Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

Roosevelt’s foreign relations were even bolder than his domestic programs. He steered the United States more actively into world politics. He liked to quote a favorite proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” When Columbia rejected the 1903 treaty giving the United States rights to a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, he supported a Panamanian revolt and negotiated a new treaty with the new nation. He then supervised the construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt streamlined the army and enlarged the navy in order to prepare the U.S. for a larger role in world affairs. In 1905, he mediated the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the Nobel Peace prize.

The significance of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership is evident in his efforts to curb private greed and power at a time when he and his fellow Americans saw firsthand the abuses of big business, the waste of the country’s natural resources, and a loss of traditional values. “This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds who is a threat to this country.”