Lessons in Leadership from a Hundred Years Ago

A new book about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft has much to tell us about the challenges facing governments today.
by | January 21, 2014

I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, The Bully Pulpit, which has reminded me how much a well-done work of history not only can enlighten us about the past but also can offer insights that illuminate current events and the challenges faced by governments today.

The book traces the political rise of both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the context of the progressive reform movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it offers some insights on what it takes to be a successful leader, then or now. It also has a lot to say about the relationships between government officials and journalists, as Roosevelt and Taft were active politically during what Goodwin refers to as "the golden age of journalism."

Three things occurred to me as particularly striking in the context of the current environment in which government officials must lead and manage:

First, consider that both Roosevelt and Taft, who were Republicans, made their careers as progressive reformers, arguing for more professionalism in government and competence as a litmus test for government employment. Civil-service reform, as is true with many of today's most significant government reforms, began in state and local government. These future presidents started out by battling political machines at the state and local level, both because the machines created a skewed playing field for those seeking public employment and because hiring unqualified workers compromised the effectiveness of government.

The embrace of government effectiveness as a political issue puts Roosevelt and Taft in sharp contrast to many current politicians (and particularly many Republicans), who increasingly run against both government and the professional civil service. Roosevelt gained early acclaim as a federal civil-service commissioner, expressing delight at being able to support a cause where his efforts were "wholly for the good." Those who advocate a focus on evidence and performance in government today are frequently fighting rear-guard actions against political leaders who are hostile or apathetic to a reform agenda. Consider, in contrast, Roosevelt's rebuke to those who worried that government reform was a "step toward socialism" -- that "if so, well and good, the step will not be retracted."

Bully Pulpit coverSecond, the story of Taft and Roosevelt points out important distinctions between leading and managing. As secretary of war, Taft was the key management figure in the Roosevelt administration. In reality, he was far more than a cabinet official; he was virtually the deputy president, making sure that government continued operating during Roosevelt's long absences from Washington. The presumption was that this would prepare him to be president; indeed, in 1908 the historian Henry Adams was quoted as saying that Taft was the "best equipped man for the Presidency who had been suggested by either party" during Adams' lifetime.

As it turned out, however, Taft was not nearly as successful a president as Roosevelt, partially because the penchant for detail that had made Taft such a successful cabinet official did not translate well into a position of higher leadership. As president, Taft often required too much information to make decisions, leading to a situation where many never got made. This, I think, should be a cautionary tale for anyone aspiring to a position of greater leadership. Leadership requires vision, but also trust and delegation.

Finally, the relationship between the press and Roosevelt demonstrated the potential for government leaders and the media to work together toward common ends. The celebrity journalists of Roosevelt's day, including Lincoln Steffens (whose book The Shame of the Cities probably did as much damage to the spoils system as anything else) and Ida Tarbell, were themselves advocates of political and government reform. They did not, as is the norm today, report on government as only a political story.

Moreover, Roosevelt knew how to use the resultant influence of journalistic work to translate public sentiment into political reform. The main goal of many government officials today is staying out of the media, with the assumption that no good can come of any media story. Many of these officials have come by this fear honestly, but it is worth considering whether there are circumstances under which the media can be allies rather than enemies.

It would be easy to read this book and just become depressed at the current state of both politics and journalism. I would hope that, instead, we could take some lessons from the story of Roosevelt, Taft and the muckraking journalists of their time -- lessons about government leadership and government reform as forces for good.

Philip Joyce
Philip Joyce  |  Contributor
pgjoyce@umd.edu  | 

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