From the Archive: Lessons on Talent from Theodore Roosevelt

by Michael Haberman on November 15, 2017 · 0 comments


Theodore Roosevelt was a keen judge of people.

Theodore Roosevelt was a keen judge of people.

When struck with a bout of writer’s block I reach back into the archive and find something I thought was good. This piece makes that grade. 

Theodore Roosevelt was known for his bold leadership during his presidency. He is considered to have had one of the most successful and talented administrations. A major reason for his success was because of his emphasis on the people he collected around him.

From the beginning

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 the fact 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.

Hire people better than you

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.” 

Key points

James M. Strock in his book, Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership, 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. Find smarter and more capable people to fill your positions.)
    • Look for the best in each person. (Don’t ask if they are a good person, ask “What are they good for?” However, TR was very high on character and he fired many a person who did not live up to his ethical standards.)
    • Where one must bargain over personnel, set standards for selection. (Have a list of skills and capabilities you need and compare candidates to this list.)
    • Spend the time necessary to evaluate and acculturate prospective team members. (Gut feelings only get you so far. Really understand if this person will fit the culture of the team you are putting together.)
    • Do not prolong consideration of people who will not receive a position. (This is a lesson many companies should pay attention to. Don’t drag people out, it does not enhance the company’s reputation.)
    • Ceaselessly search for new talent. (Always look for talent, even when you don’t need it. A prime role for a manager is to always be on the lookout for talent regardless of where they are or when.)
    • 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. Why not try to emulate a very successful executive?

Photo credit: Taken by the author at the Booth Museum in Cartersville, Georgia


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