James Strock on Theodore Roosevelt and other great leaders: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

James Strock is a best-selling author and speaker on leadership. His passion for the practice of leadership spans four decades. He’s an independent entrepreneur and reformer in business, government, and politics. He is the founder of the Serve to Lead Group. Strock also served as the founding secretary for environmental protection for the State of California; as the chief law enforcement officer of the USEPA; general counsel of the US Office of Personnel Management; and special counsel to the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. His books include Serve to Lead, Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership, Reagan on Leadership, and Disrupt Politics. Strock is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and served to captain in the USAR-JAGC. He divides his time between Arizona and California.

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Before discussing Theodore Roosevelt, please share your thoughts about a few other great leaders throughout history.

There are so many great leaders from history! I’m constantly studying their lives and work, and reflecting on various aspects of their service. Let me offer five for your consideration here.

George Washington was truly an indispensable figure, to use the term of James Thomas Flexner. It’s difficult to imagine how the American Revolution–from the Declaration of Independence through the war through the framing and adoption of the Constitution—could have occurred without his judicious involvement. Could anyone else have gathered and maintained the cohesion of the extraordinarily talented and dedicated people who came together to establish the American experiment? As president, he established expectations of himself and others that brought our always restive, rambunctious populace into a unified, shared sense of national identity and destiny. Washington’s ultimate renunciation of power, to return to private life in the manner of Cincinnatus, remains an inspiration everywhere.

Abraham Lincoln would be on everyone’s list of great American leaders. A self-made figure who, along with most people of his time, had little formal education, Lincoln emerged as an extraordinary visionary, grounded in the great works of literature. Having served in public office for a total of two years as a congressman, Lincoln entered the White House amid the unprecedented but long building secession of Southern states, heading toward Civil War. He navigated the treacherous currents of reform politics, moving into the new Republican Party, and becoming president in 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote. This most unlikely of warlords led the nation through a horrific internecine conflict. It is one of the great tragedies of American history that Lincoln was assassinated as the war came to a close. The reconstruction period was wrecked by the limitations of Andrew Johnson, by all accounts among the most disappointing of all presidents. That Lincoln turned to Johnson to help secure reelection in 1864 is understandable. Nonetheless, Johnson’s manifest unfitness for high office should have precluded his selection as Lincoln’s designated successor.

Winston Churchill was half-American and half-English, but he belongs to the world. His career holds many, many lessons—more than enough for his admirers and detractors alike. At the end of the day, Churchill’s example will endure because it’s beyond doubt that but for his leadership, the course of history would have been altogether different after the momentous year, 1940. A common error is to view events as inevitable in retrospect. Hitler’s astonishing, ruthless military, diplomatic and propaganda triumphs in 1938-40 met an immoveable force in Churchill.

Franklin Roosevelt’s historic leadership was a linchpin of what Henry Luce labelled “the American Century.” In his first two terms, FDR recast American politics. His New Deal programs can be fairly criticized for failing to reverse the Great Depression, but most would agree that he brought back America’s belief in herself. Roosevelt’s policies helped save democratic capitalism, reforming oligarchic arrangements that periodically corrupt political, economic and financial systems. Following Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt moved seamlessly to his new role, Dr. Win-the-War. His leadership in moving the US to take on Hitler’s Germany as first priority is insufficiently appreciated. If Hitler miscalculated in declaring war against the America in the days after Pearl Harbor, FDR immediately took advantage of the opening. Would most presidents have made the first priority to confront Germany, rather than Japan, who had attacked and destroyed much of the American navy and then unleashed brutal invasions against a range of Pacific nations?

FDR mobilized the military might of the United States even beyond that of the First World War, during which he served in the Navy Department. He exhibited necessary flexibility, moving from challenging big business during the New Deal, to working with it to become the ”arsenal of democracy.” As the war ended, Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” became pillar of the post-war order. The GI Bill of 1944 was a transformative moment, bringing millions of service members into higher education, one of the foundations of the middle-class for decades to come.

Roosevelt stands at the junction of various strands of twentieth-century history. A great admirer of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he married TR’s beloved niece, Eleanor. FDR also served in the administration of TR’s rival, Woodrow Wilson. He took lessons from both of his predecessors. His political legacy was enduring. It was also contested. Lyndon Johnson, who entered politics during the New Deal, envisioned his Great Society as advancing the Roosevelt domestic program that had stalled in Congress from 1938-1964. Ronald Reagan, who voted for FDR four times for president, saw himself as supporting the New Deal, while opposing what he regarded as the misadventures of the Great Society. Only now, in the early 21st century, are we beginning to recast many of the institutions and assumptions and expectations crafted in conformance with Roosevelt’s expansive vision. Outside of an existential crisis, can our system produce such a transformational political leader today?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had an outsized impact on American life. Though not an elective politician, his leadership was far more consequential than all but a few presidents. Following the example of Mahatma Gandhi and other advocates of non-violent resistance to oppression, King persuaded the non-black majority to recognize and respond to the claims of African-Americans. He was effective anywhere from the streets to the corridors of power, translating varying and opposing viewpoints into narratives that could unite people of diverse interests and perspectives. Like Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, King updated our understanding of the Declaration of Independence and its implications for our Constitution.

For all the controversies engendered by King and other great leaders, an notwithstanding failures of judgment, each was a steward of American values, leaving our constitutional system closer to the ideals of the Declaration. For that we honor them—and seek to emulate their service in our own ways.

However different they may be in most respects, what do they all share in common?

Each of the leaders mentioned above had a vivid, vital sense of history, of being part of currents linking the present to the past and future. Each was a master of communication. Each exhibited memorable resilience in the face of varied setbacks and defeats that would have crippled others. Each placed their lives and livelihoods on the line repeatedly. Each was notable for physical and moral courage. Each left the nation and its political institutions stronger. As such, their influence remains evergreen, even many years after their passing.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

One movie that stands out is the modern classic, Chariots of Fire. This 1981 film, based on actual events in the 1924 Olympics, follows the parallel lives of two great competitive runners. One is motivated primarily by his love of God; the other by the rankling spur of antisemitism in early 20th century England. Their mastery of themselves in order to serve others has implications for anyone in business. So, too their persistence and resilience and courage are evergreen inspirations.

From which non-business book have you gained the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Effectively serving in business or any other field of endeavor, has strong spiritual and psychological aspects. I find great value in the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example. Emerson wrote in a nineteenth-century America that was marked by hyper-kinetic entrepreneurial activity amid the transition of the agricultural economy to the industrial age. Emerson seemed to lose “relevance” in the mid-2oth century. His insights are being rediscovered in the entrepreneurial, post-industrial era. I also find value in a number of psychological writers, ranging from Carl Jung to Jordan Peterson. Clinical psychology can be of great value in managing oneself as well as others. History can also be valuable, including military strategy, finance and biography.

Here are a few of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This is also one of my favorite quotes. It’s included in my book, Reagan on Leadership, because it’s evocative of President Reagan’s leadership approach. He was willing to be underestimated so long as his goals were being advanced. An irony is that when a leader’s service results in transformational change, some will conclude that what was accomplished did was “obvious,” inevitable.

From Donna Dubinsky when her friend and colleague at Apple, Bill Campbell, was named CEO of Claris, the software company that was spun off from Apple: “Bill, your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader.”

What a wonderful quotation! I absolutely second the notion that leadership can be entirely independent from formal positions of authority. Leadership is best understood as being about serving others. As the quotation says, leadership ultimately is dependent on others’ evaluation of the value of your service. Though one can argue that one must have requisite leadership skills to be an effective manager, there’s a distinction between the managers who make things work, and the leaders who craft a vision to work toward.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Such a characteristically prescient insight from Toffler! Serve to Lead dedicates attention to the rising demand for lifelong learning and adaptation to change. If one is going to serve effectively in a time of rapid technological, cultural and political change, one must be learning constantly. That surely means not only being open to the new, but also being willing to reconsider or put aside longstanding views or understandings. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s writes compellingly of an evolving, “growth” mindset as a competitive advantage in contrast to a “fixed” mindset. The centralization and bureaucracy of the 20th century encouraged reliance on formal education as a sorting mechanism, inclining many toward a fixed mindset. The decentralization and relative instability of the new century is undercutting the perceived value of degrees, recasting them as emblems of entitlement. It’s not accidental that numerous companies, including in the technology space, are placing less reliance on formal education and more on proven, relevant problem-solving ability, adaptability, and emotional intelligence.

From Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain speaks to us in so many ways! Surely we can all recognize in others, as well as ourselves, the comfortable yet dangerous tendency to hold on to outdated notions. We can, over time, allow our own experiences, as defined by our habitual thoughts, to become disconnected from reality. Such tendencies can be self-indulgent and prideful if not recognized and rectified. This quotation, by the way, was a favorite of President Reagan.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

One expects the Voltaire of this quotation would nod energetically to Carol Dweck’s distinction of open and fixed mindsets. Those who find “the truth” may find themselves imprisoned by a fixed mindset that cuts itself off from the vivifying effects of minds open to challenges and elucidation from the views and experiences of others.

Finally, from Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Einstein, gifted with astonishing cognitive capacity, asserted that imagination and intuition can be higher forms of intelligence. This has particular resonance for leadership, which can be seen as both an art and a science.

Other than Theodore Roosevelt, of all the other greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation over an extended period time? Why?

Strock: It’s so difficult to choose just one! Winston Churchill would likely be among the most interesting He was a delightful conversationalist—even if a bit one-sided. He took great pleasure in the use of words. He loved history, which he saw, in great part, as a succession of larger-than-life personalities who recast their time and place. Churchill loved America and would be chock-full of ideas about how the United States could learn from the experiences of the United Kingdom and other nations.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Strock: Individual engagement and growth can be cultivated in an environment effectively applying four guideposts:

o Freedom: Talent follows freedom. People should be accorded maximal capacity to work and create in the manner that is most consistent with their individual personality, temperament and experience.

o Accountability: The greater the freedom, the greater the need for clear, enforceable metrics for accountability.

o Values: Values create value. Employees and other stakeholders are increasingly motivated by their demand that the mission of the enterprise advance their own values. This has a generational component, being sought by many in the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

One of the great challenges for CEOs will be navigating the ongoing drive toward involuntary transparency. Among the privileges of CEOs has been relative immunity from public scrutiny, especially in their private lives. Now, CEOs are being held to public and private standards akin to those of elective politicians. CEO tenure rates at large caps have been in decline for some years. With the rise of social media, and the greater demands for leaders to reflect customer values in their public and private roles, CEOs must prepare to meet ever-higher standards.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Many employees believe their work to be of little value, including many in corporate bureaucracies. Others are alienated from work that is inconsistent with their personal values. To create value over time, enterprises must strive to engage the spiritual and mental needs of their employees. This is different from viewing employees as mere factors of production. Companies renowned for employee engagement—such as Southwest Airlines and Costco—foster a sense of corporate and individual calling. Paradoxically, the rise of artificial intelligence may enable or prod companies into greater attention to their employees’ development. Some jobs will certainly be lost to AI. Yet those will have been, in many cases, the least fulfilling, such as repetitive tasks that are associated with employee alienation. As the value of creative, adaptive work continues to rise, enterprises will have to dedicate greater resources to engaging employees.

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Jim cordially invites you to checkout the resources at his website by clicking here.

Here is a direct link to  Part 2 of this interview.

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