Friday, May 06, 2005

TR: Leadership and the Call for Sacrifice

James Chace's, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs--The Election That Changed the Country is one of several books I've been reading over the past few weeks. Near the end of this enjoyable work, Chace speculates on how Theodore Roosevelt would have performed as a war-time president, as opposed to Woodrow Wilson, whose term collided with the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and US involvement in the war, starting in 1917:
TR came to believe that his greatest misfortune--as president and in 1912--was in not having had a war that called for heroic leadership. He looked back to Lincoln and understood that Lincoln's greatness rested upon his confronting and resolving a great national crisis like the Civil War. As a wartime leader he could have roused the people to self-sacrifice, to renounce the materialism he so hated, and to rise above the class divisions that had been growing so apparent in the early years of the twentieth century. [italics mine]

(Ironically, as he began his term, Wilson devoutly hoped that foreign affairs and war would not become central to his presidency because he thought himself peculiarly fitted for addressing domestic issues. Neither he or TR got their wishes and both were probably right in their assessments of themselves.)

After reading Chace's insight into Roosevelt's thinking and leadership style the other day, I read something by a major columnist, one who supported the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. He lamented that President Bush hasn't asked American civilians, presumably apart from reservists and their families, to make sacrifices.

And the columnist makes a point, I think. There have been no rubber drives, metal drives, or war bonds sales. We Americans have, for the most part, been allowed to go on with our lives in spite of being told that we were engaged in a desperate fight for our freedom as a nation, the world's fourth great world war. (By that reckoning, the Cold War was the third world war.)

President Bush and his administration seem to have made essentially the same decision embraced by Lyndon Johnson as he took America deeper into the Vietnam War: They both believed that we could have guns and butter. While dangerous federal budget deficits have mounted higher and higher, both presidents have seemed to tell us that we could have it all.

Perhaps for fear of arousing a genuine, pervasive antiwar movement that penetrated middle America--those who inhabit the middle class, the middle west, and the middle ground in politics and life, both presidents have fought huge wars without asking most of us to change the way we live our lives.

One of the greatest mistakes I have made as a leader over the years has been to ask too little of those I lead. If everything is humming along fine in a country, an organization, a company, an educational institution, or a church, the members, citizens, or constituents have little motivation for making the extra efforts and the authentic sacrifices needed to bring genuine, gratifying success. When leaders ask little of people, people decide that the causes they enunciate aren't really that important.

Leaders who don't seek help and commitment from those they lead will never call forth greatness from their constituents...or from themselves.

Does the failure of the Bush Administration to call most of us to any sacrifices beyond spending more time in airport lines, reflect some insecurity about their case that the war in Iraq has something to do with the war on terrorism? I don't know. But I think that TR, one of the greatest of all Republican presidents and a leader who only grows in stature in my mind as I learn more about him, would be agitating for Mr. Bush to lead us in a selfless and focused national effort to combat terrorism that would involve us all.

[For more about presidential leadership, see here and here.]

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