Theodore Roosevelt’s 20 Key Elements of Leadership

By James M. Strock, a lawyer and the author of Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership (Random House):

[Roosevelt] was . . . the greatest executive of his generation. –– Gifford Pinchot

“The leader must understand that he leads us, that he guides us, by convincing us so that we will follow him or follow his direction. He must not get it into his head that it is his business to drive us or rule us. His business is to manage the government for us.”– Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt is universally recognized as a consequential—indeed transformational—leader. TR defined numerous aspects of leadership that we now take for granted in the presidency as well as in private life. His inspirational vision (including environmental protection, which may be more widely comprehended in our time than his own) was certainly one element. Another was his remarkable ability to communicate his vision, not only through his well-crafted words, but even more through his indelible example. TR’s well-publicized, courageous exploits in Cuba in the brief but deadly Spanish-American War of 1898—the fateful days he viewed as the linchpin of his life—are perhaps the most apt symbol of his leadership. Mounted conspicuously on horseback, in front of and above the troops in his command, Roosevelt showed the way—asking others to “come” rather than saying “go” in the words of his friend Henry Cabot Lodge—putting himself at risk, making himself accountable, giving more of himself than he would ever ask of others.

Roosevelt was also a skilled, subtle manager. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus make a useful distinction between the leader and the manager:

By focusing attention on a vision, the leader operates on the emotional and spiritual resources of the organization, on its values, commitment, and aspirations. The manager, by contrast, operates on the physical resourcesof the organization, on its capital, human skills, raw materials, and technology. Any competent manager can make it possible for people in the organization to earn a living. An excellent manager can see to it that work is done productively and efficiently, on schedule, and with a high level of quality. It remains for the effective leader, however, to help people in the organization know pride and satisfaction in their work. Great leaders often inspire their followers to high levels of achievement by showing them how their work contributes to worthwhile ends.

In practice both leadership and management skills are necessary to achieve organizational success. Though an individual may display both sets of skills, in many cases the different emphases required and traits utilized point toward different individuals and personality types. A leader may be conspicuous for his or her ability to present abstractions or possibilities in a compelling manner, often utilizing (to the consternation of those relying solely on analytical or quantitative approaches) artful ambiguity to engage and enlarge the scope of others’ interest and participation. A manager generally adds value by translating the vision into relatively concrete, measurable terms that enable an enterprise to quantify and better organize the work of its members.

A leader must have a strong grasp of management to assure that visions translate into results, or, as Roosevelt might have put it in speaking of politics, so that prophecies can be turned into policies. TR was a notably pragmatic leader. In the same vein as his oft-quoted statement, “Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground,” the poetry of Roosevelt’s leadership was brought “down to earth”—made effective—by his attention to the prose of management. TR was, in Peter Drucker’s definition, an “executive,” one who is “responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.”

The 20 Key Elements of Leadership:

  1. Begin hard and fast
  2. Seize – and hold – the initiative
  3. Continually communicate your vision to members of the organisation
  4. Make the welfare of your team your foremost responsibility
  5. Hire people more talented than yourself
  6. Ceaselessly search for new talent
  7. Recognise strong performers
  8. Acknowledge and forgive acceptable mistakes – including your own
  9. Overlook “minor differences”
  10. Ruthlessly replace individuals who do not meet the standards of the enterprise
  11. Develop leaders
  12. Demonstrate faith in your team by delegation of authority
  13. Delegation, though extensive, should be bounded by clear standards
  14. Fortify delegation with selective intervention
  15. Manage by wandering around
  16. Back up your team
  17. Create an “inner circle” of leadership
  18. Continually convey loyalty and gratitude to your team – even after it has been disbanded or leadership has been transferred
  19. Serve as a continual agent of change
  20. Become the author of yourself

For a comprehensive description of each element use the reference below.


Strock, J.M. (2013) Theodore Roosevelt’s 20 Key Elements of Leadership. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 02 March, 2014].


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