A life was ended by an assassin’s bullet just after 4 o’clock on a September afternoon. Two shots had shifted the fate of two men. Onlookers noticed how, after the shots rang out, “There was an instant of almost complete silence, like the hush that follows a clap of thunder.” One man said with a faint breath before collapsing, “be careful how you tell my wife.” The other man, prideful, psychotic, stood still—before being wrestled to the ground and nearly lynched by the crowd.
The multitude, which only moments before were cheerful and jubilant, slowly began to realize they were witnesses to a horrible scene. Confusion spread; order turned to disorder, and finally, panic and chaos gripped the mass of spectators. A president had been murdered. The nation’s leader was lost. Hope, the salient virtue that carried him into office, perished—exchanged with mourning and grief.
When President William McKinley was cut down by a 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz in 1901, the horror and loss sent shockwaves throughout the nation. But what concerned the public in the days and weeks ahead, as the president lay dying, was his replacement…
The Age of Action
He was an unlikely candidate, a leader who had been purposely placed in the shadows, in an office out of reach. John Adams, the first man to hold the office, described the position as “…the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
The man occupying the office of vice president of the United States, an office that was supposed to neutralize his power and popularity, was labeled arrogant and egotistical. Some called him eccentric; others found him to be aloof. But one moniker he had received just before taking office eventually stuck: “That dammed cowboy.”
When I think about ethical leadership or incredible leadership in general, the name Theodore Roosevelt immediately flashes into my mind. He challenged the status quo as a young New York state assemblyman. As the police commissioner of New York City, he fought tirelessly against corruption and unethical practices, completely transforming the department. He implemented policies and reformed bureaucratic thinking as the U.S. Civil Service commissioner and assistant secretary of the Navy. He led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War; and, by the age of 42, he had become the youngest president in U.S. history.
By 1919, when the life of Roosevelt finally waned, a mountain of legislation—conserving natural resources, controlling the power of corporations, and protecting consumers—had been enacted. The Panama Canal was completed. The U.S. Navy and foreign policy was stronger than ever. An era of unprecedented American progress, progress that he spearheaded, was well underway. The life of Roosevelt was a strenuous life, but it was a life of action; it’s easy to see that he accomplished more in his youth than most do in a lifetime. Arguably, he accomplished far more during his presidency than any before him or after him with the exception of Lincoln. This is a sobering and, possibly, an incongruous thought as we consider electing our next president in just a few weeks’ time.
The number of leaders that Roosevelt has inspired is incalculable.
He has inspired me, as I told students during my recent TEDxYouth talk, that we should all heed his words to “Get action” instead of waiting for the perfect time, the perfect leader, or the “right” age. It starts with us.
The leadership examples of Roosevelt’s life are a goldmine for those of us who want to impact true change in the world around us.
I have attempted to share a few lessons here that have influenced my own leadership.
1. ACT QUICKLY
Roosevelt acted quickly on just about everything that he did. You don’t write nearly 40 books, earn the Nobel Peace Prize, and build a Panama Canal by sitting still.
Today, we live in a state of constant flux, and leaders must act quickly to resolve problems or risk becoming a relic.
Within five months of taking office, Roosevelt took on the giant corporations and the industrialists that he believed held too much power, starting with the corporate baron, J.P. Morgan. His reputation as a “trust buster,” canal builder, and conservationist came, in part, because he refused to stand by and wait for others to take action.
2. CONTROL YOUR BODY AND MIND
Roosevelt was a weak and fragile child.
Instead of accepting his fate, his father pushed him to live the strenuous life. He built his body as well as his mind through sports, voracious reading, and constant activity.
He once told his doctor who encouraged him to be sedentary because of his weak heart, “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do … If I’ve got to live the sort of life you have described, I don’t care how short it is.”
3. TRADE HEARTACHE FOR ACTION
Roosevelt could have given into grief. His wife and mother died on the same day—Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1884—in the same house. A black “X” followed by one sentence was written into his diary that evening: “the light has gone out of my life.
Instead of succumbing to grief, he headed West, for the Dakota Territory, purchasing a ranch near Medora and working as a full-fledged cowboy. Roosevelt learned that his grief could not stop him if he traded heartache for action.
As he stated, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”
4. INSTILL CHARACTER
My favorite character trait of Roosevelt was his unwavering ethical fortitude.
Throughout his career, Roosevelt could have been a company man, especially when he returned to politics after heading West.
He could have bent to the pressure and influence of corrupt men.
Instead, he remained resolute, ethical.
His commitment to character impacted those around him and firmly established his reputation as a politician who was not for sale.
5. OBSERVE ACTION, NOT AGE
The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel is attributed with saying, “Age is something that doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese.” Roosevelt would have agreed.
Whether you are 8 or 80—get action! There is no standard prerequisite age for leadership. You can lead anytime, anywhere, at any age.
6. NULLIFY NEGATIVITY
Grit, Angela Duckworth has observed, is the key to success in work and in life.
It takes grit to nullify a negative mindset, the opinions of negative people, and negative situations—but this is paramount to achieving success.
On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot in the chest outside a Milwaukee hotel by a would-be assassin. Instead of heading to the hospital, he walked to the auditorium and delivered an inspirational 90-minute speech … with a bullet lodged in his ribcage.
Apparently, Roosevelt didn’t believe in sick days.