The partisan political environment in America provides opportunity for the next generation of American leaders. Don't believe it? Just ask Theodore Roosevelt.
I have always been skeptical of the idea that young leaders should imitate the leadership found in history books. It was my belief that the challenges of tomorrow required new and unique leaders. But this all changed when I discovered unpublished accounts from the peers of Theodore Roosevelt. I now believe that young leaders -- those who want to own the future -- would be well served to emulate TR.
It is no secret that the current state of political disunity in America is venomous. But it is not new. From 1876 to 1888, when Theodore Roosevelt was 18 to 30 years old and coming of age politically, America engaged in four of its ten closest presidential elections. The country was polarized, divided by the rampant Spoils System that had taken hold since the Civil War -- a sinister patronage arrangement in which politicians used government jobs to hire party faithful and further political interests. The tumultuous debate to rid the country of the Spoils System cost President James Garfield his life, gunned down by an assassin who felt slighted for not getting a government post. In his early twenties, and within a year of Garfield's death, TR dedicated his life to the establishment of a pure and merit-based American government.
The theater for TR was more fiercely polarized than today's drama.
While at Harvard, I was in a study group with Charlie Gibson (previous anchor of ABC World News), where we examined the causation of vitriol so profoundly malignant in U.S. politics of today. In a quest to discover how past leaders overcame polarization, I spent several nights at the Roosevelt Presidential Collection at Harvard where the curator let me have a run at over 4,000 unpublished documents from TR's diverse set of peers.
Two themes emerge from the unpublished sources that today's political leaders might well learn from:
1) Embrace contradiction and diversity of thought: TR knew that leadership was a way of life, and that life is full of contradiction. He was a pathetically sick child who fought to survive into adolescence, yet his relentless energy would come to symbolize American fortitude. He grew up in one of the richest families in the country, yet would become a crusader for the poor. He was the first president born in a large city (Manhattan), but became the most famous outdoorsman and conservationist the country has ever had. He was known for his cowboy bravura, yet was a scholar who read incessantly and authored over thirty books in his lifetime.
How could one man harbor so much contradiction and still be an authentic leader?
According to his peers, TR appreciated the contradictions in his own life which enabled him to appreciate the expansive humanity at play in every great leadership challenge. In that humanity -- with all its chaos and diversity -- TR found opportunity to focus on uniting values inherent in disparate groups; centering the attention on the collective work required to own the future, rather than taking the common approach of seducing factions to divide and conquer.
Theodore's own contradictions bred respect for Americans at every rung of the social ladder. He knew the rich (his ancestors) were not the enemy of poverty (his cause). He knew that the upper-class easterner (his New York acquaintances) was not that different from the westerner from parts unknown (his friends from the Badlands). So he spoke to the masses, not the factions. The result, according to a friend of TR: "He knew us, and we knew him." In an era of partisanship, TR proved to be a fresh and bonding voice, a fighter for all of America.
2) Have a uniting message and protect it:TR believed that good people-regardless of personal heritage or party affiliation-were needed to lead America into the new frontier. To stay on message, he took on Democrats and Republicans alike, and actually saved his most aggressive attacks for those who promoted his own reform movement -- the "lunatic fringe," as he called them. TR created, and used the term "lunatic fringe," on people within his own movement, people who were getting off message, people jeopardizing his vision for the future.
Could you imagine a political leader of today having the courage to call one of their own the "lunatic fringe"?
Mark Twain quipped that "history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The next generation American leader should take comfort knowing that the era in which TR came into leadership certainly rhymes with the current tenor of American politics. The stage is set.