The HR Wisdom of TR

by Michael Haberman on March 29, 2011 · 3 comments


I read presidential biographies, in fact I have set the goal of reading a biography on each president. (Yes, even Millard Fillmore.) My favorite president however is Theodore Roosevelt. I have twenty or more books on TR, including a very old book of his letters. An enjoyable read amongst them is a book called Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership written by James M. Strock. He covers a number of areas in his book, but one chapter has particular relevance to human resources.

Theodore Roosevelt was heavily involved with personnel issues in his career, even as, and especially when he was President. Early in his career he was involved in the reform of the New York City Police Department and also the U.S. Civil Service. He helped remove hiring by favoritism replacing it with hiring done on merit. He was very big on merit and the value that a particular person could bring to the position. This was best exemplified by his appointment of William Moody as Secretary of the Navy, then as the U.S. Attorney General, then as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, despite that Moody had been a very harsh critic of TR for many years. The criticism aside he saw the capabilities that Moody would bring to the job.

TR was of the opinion that you hired the best and most capable. Hiring a “toady” to make you appear to be the smartest or best was not the route to success for him. Instead you hired people smarter, more knowledgeable, with bigger ideas and a willingness to face up to the boss when needed. Roosevelt was quoted:

“Personally I have never been able to understand why the head of a big business, whether it be the Nation, the State or the Army, or Navy should not desire to have very strong and positive people under him.”  

Stokes in his book has extracted several points about TR’s approach to personnel selection that I think are as important today as they were in the early 1900’s. These points are (my comments in italics):

  • Hire people more talented than oneself. (No one is served by having weak team members.)
  • Look for the best in each person. (Don’t ask if they are a good person, ask “What are they good for?”)
  • Where one must bargain over personnel, set standards for selection.
  • Spend the time necessary to evaluate and acculturate prospective team members. (Gut feelings only get you so far.)
  • Do not prolong consideration of people who will not receive a position. (This is a lesson many companies should pay attention to.)
  • Ceaselessly search for new talent. (Always look for talent, even when you don’t need it.)
  • Ruthlessly replace individuals who do not meet the standards of the enterprise. (I would replace the term “ruthlessly” with “quickly”, but the lesson is that no one is served by keeping a bad employee one minute longer than necessary.)
  • Work with the tools at hand. (What was meant by this was finding the best in each person. Realize people will make mistakes, but work to get the work done anyway.)

In my opinion companies, executives and Human Resources would do well to heed this advice. But then I am a fan of TR.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Wally Bock April 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Another good presidential example is Abraham Lincoln’s selection of cabinet members as described in Team of Rivals. He chose strong people even though several of them opposed him politically.

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Michael Haberman April 4, 2011 at 10:44 am

Thanks Wally. I have Team of Rivals sitting in my stack to read. I will have to get to it now.

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