jeff meyers blog

Leadership in Turbulent Times

Several months ago I wrote a blog on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I liked that book so much that I decided to try another one of her books, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Well, it didn’t disappoint, and in fact turned out to be incredibly relevant to how we as leaders face and respond to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

leasdershipinturbulenttimesThe book showcases four leaders, all of whom happen to be past Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. In light of our current challenges with Covid-19, a chapter on crisis management, which focused on how Teddy Roosevelt handled the coalminer’s strike in 1902, caught my attention. The chapter starts with Roosevelt unexpectedly becoming President in late 1901 after William McKinley was shot and killed at the Pan-Am Exhibition in Buffalo. The following spring, coalminers went on strike across the country. Prior to that time, there was no legal or historical precedent for a President intervening in a business dispute such as a strike. But Roosevelt was very much the activist President, and ended up jumping into the fray. The chapter lists a dozen or so principles on leadership in times of crisis that we can learn from Roosevelt’s handling of the coalminer crisis. I’ll highlight a handful of these principles that might be helpful and relevant to us as we navigate today’s crisis.

  • Use history to provide perspective.
    As the coalminer’s strike unfolded in the summer of 1902, Teddy Roosevelt looked to history to provide him with guidance. Already a voracious reader, over a few months period Roosevelt consumed history book after history book in the hopes that these books might give him insight into his current crisis. He read about the Gilded Age and the growth of combinations and trusts. He reviewed the history of his own family’s wealth accumulation, and, most significantly, he read a ten-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  He understood that the task before him was different than the one that faced Lincoln, but he also recognized that “the ‘men and forces’ at play were ‘yet the same in their infinite variety of kind’.” In other words, Teddy Roosevelt learned lessons from history, and then applied them to his current situation.

  • Re-evaluate options, be ready to adapt as the situation escalates.
    Early on a report named the Wright Report, which outlined the need for improved working conditions for miners and painted mine owners in an unflattering light, was given to Roosevelt. Initially, Roosevelt listened to and went along with his advisors, who counseled that he not issue the report publicly. Their concern was that it would inflame the anger of the mine owners unnecessarily, and ultimately do more harm than good. However, as the situation escalated and got worse month by month, Roosevelt decided to re-evaluate his earlier decision, and ultimately chose to move ahead and release the report publicly. To some, this may have seemed like he was going back on a decision that he had already made. Failure to stay the course, some would say. However, Roosevelt recognized the need to re-evaluate decisions and change his mind if changed circumstances warranted doing so.

  • Be visible.
    During the heart of the coalminer’s strike crisis, Teddy Roosevelt chose to travel by train and open horse drawn carriage through New England and the Midwest, stopping in as many places as possible to give speeches and mix with the people. This certainly made it harder for him to do the work that he would have otherwise done in his office. However, Roosevelt understood that in a crisis it is more important than ever for the leader to be out among and in front of his or her people. Public visibility is more important than ever in times of crisis. As Roosevelt recognized, our people want to see a leader who is calm, decisive, and in control, and they want to see him or her in person.

  • Clear the decks and focus with single mindedness on the crisis.
    During his trip to the Midwest, Roosevelt was thrown from his horse driven carriage and developed an infection in his leg, which forced him to return to the White House. Although disappointed that he couldn’t finish his trip, the fact that he couldn’t see visitors while he was convalescing in the White House provided him the opportunity to focus single mindedly on the crisis at hand, with few distractions or competing priorities. It was during this time of convalescence that he made his monumental, precedent breaking decision to intervene in the coal strike. It’s hard to know if he would have made that same decision if he wasn’t laid up and unable to receive visitors, but his ability to have single minded focus on the issue at hand certainly contributed to him making this critical decision.

  • Find ways to relieve stress.
    Teddy Roosevelt had always been an active man, and he was forever going on hikes, playing tennis, and engaging in boxing. After his leg injury, however, he couldn’t do these and he turned to reading as a stress reliever. Even during the darkest and most stressful times, finding ways to relieve stress is key for a leader. It’s different for everyone, and Roosevelt found what worked for him.

The crisis we face today with the coronavirus is much different than the coalminer’s strike Teddy Roosevelt faced over a hundred years ago. Many things have changed, and new approaches are certainly required and necessary. However, I think the principles that Teddy Roosevelt lived by during the coalminer’s strike are enduring and can certainly help us as leaders today as we navigate this pandemic.

 

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