Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Lesson in Leadership from the Melancholic Teddy Roosevelt

The 26th President led a very tragic life; it made him empathetic and a great leader

Guest post from Jon Knokey:

Certainly there can only be one Theodore Roosevelt: the smile, the bombastic laugh, the unbridled energy that bore him the nickname the “steam engine in trousers.” 

But Theodore Roosevelt was deeply melancholic and forlorn. America just did not know it, then or now.

“His own brave and cheerful front was what the world knew him for,” biographer David McCullough writes “. . . [but] he dwelt more on the isolation and sadness inherent in human life, than most people ever realized.”

An intensely sick and asthmatic kid, living in sheltered aristocracy, Theodore fought off death as a youngster.  Few in the Roosevelt family thought he would survive to see his eighth birthday.  Shortly after TR turned twenty years old, his father died abruptly of cancer. Just a few years later, on Valentine’s Day 1884, Theodore’s mother and wife died on the same day, in the same house, just hours a part.   The wife died from Bright’s disease, the mother from typhoid fever.  All three deaths – father, mother, and wife - were a complete shock.

Roosevelt spent months not sleeping, walking through the streets of New York alone at all hours of the night.  Friends recalled his bloodshot eyes, his inability to process the disaster.  He told a friend he had nothing to live for.  He wrote in his diary that “the light has gone out of my life.” 

“He was carrying a grief that he had in his own soul,” a close friend confirmed, “. . .[it] hounded him to death.”

To Roosevelt the world was flawed and ephemeral; an imperfect place that required moral leaders vigorously fighting to mend its brokenness.  This burden of sadness propelled TR to seek the beauty in leading imperfect people, in an imperfect world, to a new and better frontier.  His tragedies provided a vessel to empathize with the poor and the sick, the young and the old, the north and the south, all in the name of uniting around the belief that the future would be better than the past.

The hard truth of the three tragic deaths meant that the end was always near.  His father had died at forty-six; mother at forty-eight; wife, at twenty-two.  Life, like a candle, could be snuffed out instantly.  It was this overpowering appreciation that life was wild and precious and fleeting, that undoubtedly propelled TR to become the youngest person to ever be President.

Alice Roosevelt, Theodore’s eldest child, was often surprised to find that her father - the most popular man in America - would suddenly and silently succumb to what she termed “a melancholic streak.”  Unprompted, Theodore would get quiet and abruptly retreat to his inner thoughts, his mind a thousand miles away, his body despondent.  Often, his other children would find their dad in his study staring out the window, his eyes down, lost in his own mind.  His second wife Edith would categorize his many lapses into sadness as another one of "his depressed conditions about the future.”

Theodore, much like Abraham Lincoln, went through pains to hide his melancholy from the public; a forlorn leader was not what America wanted.  Theodore gave the masses energy and vibrancy.  But it was not easy.

On the day he was inaugurated governor of New York he arrived at the Executive Mansion and began shaking hands with  several thousand New Yorkers who had lined up to meet him.  Through smiles and laughter, the mood was festive and energetic.  TR boomed with laughter.

But despite all the pomp, and despite the fact that he was the most celebrated man in the nation’s most influential state, Theodore quickly grew quiet when he left the cheering crowds. His intimates had come to expect this.  After walking into the executive mansion for the very first time as Governor, he leaned in to longtime friend Fanny Parsons.  Eyes downtrodden and sad, he whispered that he had “shot his last bolt.”  It was only if he could find a way to leave his children “a legacy of work well done,” would he find happiness.

In Theodore’s melancholic mind, he was already forecasting a sorrowful end to his political career, just minutes after he was sworn in as Governor. The proclamation that he “shot his last bolt” is particularly peculiar considering four of the previous six US Presidential elections had included a Governor from New York and Roosevelt was only forty-one years old at the time.

“I have known sorrow too bitter and joy too keen to allow me to become either cast down or elated for more than a very brief period over success or defeat,” Theodore explained.

Theodore Roosevelt embraced the fragility of life.  He never gloated in victory and had the strength to persevere in trial and defeat.  He just endured it all, striving to lead American’s to a better frontier, together, as one.  This steadfast determination was shaped by his crucible moments of suffering.

Perhaps we can learn from a leader who internalized empathy - a man who promoted community in times of sadness as well as joy? Perhaps, then, we should revisit the importance of internal empathy, and not outwardly charisma, as a potential hallmark of true leadership? 

After all, it was Roosevelt’s empathy that made him a leader of consequence.

Jon Knokey is the author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership, a riveting book exploring the leadership journey of the 26th President.
Jon is a former NCAA quarterback for Montana State University. He holds a Masters in Business Administration from Dartmouth College and a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University. Jon was a Vice President for a start-up software company before joining the MBA executive leadership programs at General Electric and then at John Deere. His career has focused on leadership and management at the intersection of business and government. He and his wife have two young daughters. Find out more at:  

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