Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Winning One for the Roughrider and the Gipper

Written by: on February 3, 2021

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership in Turbulent Times” is the story of four US American presidents. Each begins with his upbringing and earliest recognition of leadership abilities, then shifts to formative life experiences that shaped his leadership, and finally a description of a major leadership challenge that would define his presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley just six months into McKinley’s second term. Roosevelt had six months as Vice President on his resume, along with two years as governor of New York. He had also held several other government positions and had served in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt’s love of the outdoors and adventure is well-documented, as his is childhood struggles with health.

Roosevelt was much more progressive than the conservative McKinley, but when Roosevelt stepped into the presidency following McKinley’s death, he worked hard to maintain a sense of continuity by asking the current cabinet members to remain in their jobs and pledging his commitment to McKinley’s campaign platform of peace, prosperity, and honor.[1] However, a labor crisis in 1902 would shape Roosevelt’s legacy as he found creative solutions to bend his Constitutional powers.

When the United Mine Workers, the largest union in the nation at the time, decided to strike in the spring of 1902, it threatened to create, in Roosevelt’s estimation, “the most widespread and bloody civil disturbance we have known in our time.”[2] The Executive Branch of government had no constitutional authority to intervene, nor was there was there any legal or historical precedent for such action. Roosevelt spent the first few months of the strike simply keeping an eye on the situation and methodically considering ways he might help resolve the crisis.

As the summer months gave way to autumn and the possibility of a winter without coal became very real, Roosevelt increased the urgency. He used his personal charm and charisma in a public relations effort, taking a page from Abraham Lincoln’s playbook. He also relied on his optimism, his patience, and his relational skills ultimately to resolve the crisis peacefully. Roosevelt leveraged his influence as the president in ways that had not been done before, and established a role for government in the relationship between capital and labor.[3]

Roosevelt’s personality was as much a factor in the success of this endeavor as his strategy. Like Lincoln before him, Roosevelt was generous with praise and credit for success, open to suggestions and differences of opinion, and held a high view of the best in human nature. His positivity was not unlike another Republican president, the “Gipper” himself, Ronald Reagan[4], though Reagan’s attitudes toward government intervention and capitalism would be very different than Roosevelt’s.

In “The Undefended Leader,” Simon Walker highlights Reagan as an example of the “PWX” or “Affiliative Strategy.” Leaders who operate from this perspective have the ability to draw people into a shared sense of purpose and are often responsive and affirming of people in a highly relational way. Affiliative leadership is more front stage than back, but not in a way that focuses on obligation, but instead by “winning hearts and minds,…finding that emotional resonance.”[5] While Walker lifts up Reagan as an example, it is easy to see Teddy Roosevelt functioning with this style as well.

This also stands as an example of well-differentiated leadership as Edwin Friedman outlines. That is, “the capacity to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes; the capacity to obtain clarity about one’s principles and values; the willingness to be exposed and to be vulnerable; persistence in the face of inertial resistance; and self-regulation in the face of reactive sabotage.”[6]

Roosevelt was, and remains, the youngest person in US American history to become president. Yet some believe he may have been the best prepared, especially for the time in which he served.[7] His personality and style were unique, but he also relished the opportunity the presidency afforded him to guide the USA into the 20th century. His ability to “win friends and influence people,” as Dale Carnegie once said, along with his willingness to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” as T.R. himself famously said, place him, quite literally, on the Mount Rushmore of American leaders.

If Roosevelt’s example speaks any truth, perhaps it highlights the virtue of being true to and leading from one’s authentic self.

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 243-4.

[2] Ibid, 245.

[3] Ibid, 271.

[4] “The Gipper” became a nickname for Reagan, though it came from a line Reagan once spoke in a movie in which he played a character based on a Notre Dame football player named George Gipp.

[5] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 221.

[6] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 96.

[7] David McCollough, “Mornings on Horseback,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003,) 363.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

9 responses to “Winning One for the Roughrider and the Gipper”

  1. Greg Reich says:


    I may need to buy the book you are reading. I can only imaging the diversity of leadership you are seeing. I wonder if Rosevelt and Lincoln were as self differentiated as they seemed? In our complex culture of instant news, political lobby’s foreign and domestic demanding things and social media can a politician really be differentiating. As business man without everyone vying for my attention of in put self differentiation is quite simple. But, in a more demanding position I am not so sure I would survive as a leader in a greater position in this current environment. In your current position with in your denomination what is the great challenge to your self differentiation in our cultural environment?

    • John McLarty says:

      I think the biggest challenge in being self-differentiated is found in Friedman’s thesis that people today are so anxious and craving quick fixes, that a leader who is able to stay calm in the chaos seems out of touch or, as I’ve been called at times, aloof. Many would rather a leader mirror, perhaps harness, their fear because it justifies it and feels like a step toward resolution. When a leader takes a more differentiated approach, it’s not only confusing and unhelpful, it’s almost offensive. Kipling’s poem “If” always resonates with me.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    It is fascinating how Roosevelt, like Mussolini, creatively leveraged his leadership during a labor crisis, yet in a vastly different way. Roosevelt navigated the crisis through peaceful and relational means, while Mussolini heavy-handedly threatened violence.

    As you read about Roosevelt, which of his leadership attributes do you possess and/or find most challenging to implement in your ministry context and why?

    • John McLarty says:

      I always think of TR as this boisterous, optimistic, fireball of man, which he was in many ways. But he was also thoughtful and reflective. He received as much from reading and solitary rides on horseback as he did from sparring sessions in the boxing ring and other vigorous forms of exercise. He was also strategic in how he worked with people and built relationships. Quick with public praise and shared credit, but also willing to be tough behind closed doors. He strikes me as an example of someone who found a good balance between frontstage and backstage work. I didn’t really answer your question because I feel like I’m in a new season of learning right now!

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        One of my favorite things about seminary is that I am surrounded by people who are learning, asking new questions, and, like you, not jumping to old answers. Thank you for highlighting more of Roosevelt’s qualities.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    John, I see a bit of Bonhoeffer in your descriptions as well. One of the things Metaxas reiterates time and time again is Bonhoeffer’s ability to win the hearts of people he’s around. He knew how to strike a balance between being serious and being light-hearted and was known for small “practical jokes” or making light-hearted jokes around people.

    I think that’s something we miss in leadership at times – the ability simply relax and have fun. The leaders who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and let their guard down are the ones who have an easier time gaining trust. Of course, there’s a time and place for it. But we need to learn to strike that balance.

    • John McLarty says:

      I think you’re exactly right. Effective leadership relies on relationships, certainly as much as it relies on character, and even more than it relies on ability. TR seemed to have a knack for seeing (or at least pretending to see) the best of what people were capable of and then leveraging his passion and optimism to bring that out.

  4. Chris Pollock says:

    Awesome depth and connection in this post, John. Apologies for my late reply.

    I think my dad gave me some of Carnegie’s writings in my early twenties. Along with Norman Vincent Peale’s stuff.

    Appreciate the connection across leadership thought and practise. I would like to learn more about Roosevelt. He sounds like neat guy.

    Are you a leader like that? One who “speaks softly and carries a big stick”?

    I think, it is a natural thing, ‘the gentle approach’, even with the big issues, for those who’ve developed this kind of character through experience and ‘storms’ and love.

    For others, not so much so. As if a gentle approach is used for its better effect, like an exploitation of ‘gentleness’. It, as a manipulative tool, in order to accomplish a desired end.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    For TR, that authenticity came through a informational process of being comfortable in his own skin. How might we accelerate that in individuals?

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