Dr. Barron on Leadership, U.S. Presidents and Impact

Penn State Today

Submitted: August 6, 2014
By Eric J. Barron
President, Penn State

President Eric Barron recently spoke to student leaders who had gathered at Penn State Berks to celebrate the 50th annual Penn State Summer Leadership Conference. He spoke about leadership styles and the different approaches two of the United States’ great presidents took. Following are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Ever since I assumed my first role as university president, friends and colleagues have been mailing me books on leadership and management and various facets of operational success. I have worried that they were trying to send me the message that I need a lot of help, and they hope that they aren’t too late. I must admit that I haven’t “researched” the topic of leadership, but I do feel that I am constantly learning and enjoying it.

So, let me try something out on you – a leadership perspective from the view of Mount Rushmore.

My first thought – I understand Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington – but why Teddy Roosevelt?

In 1925 Calvin Coolidge insisted that the monument include Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat, and there weren’t a lot of great Republicans after Lincoln to choose from (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, McKinley.) It was also much more than Coolidge wanting to outnumber the Democrats. In fact, today Teddy is always listed as one of the top 10 of great presidents.

He is responsible for some notable quotes — “walk softly and carry a big stick” — and had a bigger than life personality as a cowboy president. But, in terms of anti-trust (breaking up Standard Oil and big railroads), integrity of public offices, and conservation, he was truly notable. He accomplished a great deal.

So, let’s look at his leadership style.

He was active in New York politics, serving as a state assemblyman, president of the New York City police board, and running for mayor. How did the press describe him? He was called, “Irrepressible, belligerent and enthusiastic,” because he pushed reform so relentlessly. He basically pushed everyone aside. In fact, the political powers in New York wanted him out of New York so badly they convinced President McKinley to appoint him as assistant secretary of the Navy (he had a reputation for military scholarship but McKinley did not want him to have too visible or powerful of an appointment because of his reputation as a bull in a china shop).

When the USS Maine blew up off the coast of Cuba, and the secretary of the Navy left the office to go out of town, apparently within four hours Roosevelt cabled the Navy across the globe to prepare for war. He ordered Admiral Dewey to contain the Spanish in Manila, and then he worked to convince the president.

He was New York’s governor after his success with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Once again his “firebrand approach against machine politics” drove the state bosses to push Teddy Roosevelt to be vice president – a position with very little power. But with the assassination of McKinley, that wasn’t the case for long.

What did people say who were in leadership at the time? Nothing was too small for Roosevelt in his willingness to exercise power.

I want to give you one example of the exercise of power:

From 1900 to 1906, every bill introduced in Congress to set aside federal lands for national parks failed. The opposite sometimes occurred - moved the forest service out of the U.S. Department of the Interior to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All efforts at preservation were usually blocked by western legislators who did not want to see any controls put on mining and harvesting trees. They particularly wanted to prevent any parcel of any real size from being taken out of circulation that might slow economic development.

Now, Roosevelt was, deep in his heart, a conservationist. Congress distrusted him – especially the western legislators who called him “a crazy forest reserve elitist.”

Although his efforts were successfully blocked, between 1903 and 1905 he started setting aside bird reserves with the words, “I so declare it.”

He focused on lands that weren’t visible to the public or Congress (except to local poachers for which he hired wardens). Finally, his friends worked to put together the finely crafted Antiquities Act of 1906 to prevent the pillage of Native American artifacts. The bill gave the President authority to create national monuments and to protect historic and prehistoric structures and objects of historic or scientific significance, with the size dictated by only what was necessary to preserve those objects or monuments. The bill passed.

Teddy acted quickly, and the first use of the act was to protect Devils Tower National Monument. In three years, he set aside 18 national monuments. All by executive fiat. At first, they were small. Then he set aside the Grand Canyon (808,120 acres) and then Mount Olympus (615,000 acres) as “objects” of scientific interest. In total he set aside 230 million acres including five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests and 51 bird reservations. Hence the title of Douglas Brinkley’s book on Roosevelt, “The Wilderness Warrior.”

This was clearly an abuse of the Antiquities Act; he simply ignored Congress as either too slow or opposed to his goals. He didn’t act as a power broker in back rooms, he just did it – he was an imperial president. In fact, he even helped the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House because he wouldn’t compromise and support Taft for a second term.

Would we tolerate him today? He is labeled as one of the greatest presidents because of his legacy, because his actions are viewed as benevolent, not because his leadership style was worth emulating. What if he hadn’t been benevolent? It seems to me that this is greatness by virtue of what he accomplished, not how he accomplished it.

Let’s now look at Abraham Lincoln: Roosevelt’s neighbor on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln is an incredible contrast to Teddy Roosevelt.

Lincoln’s greatness is basically unquestioned, as he is credited with ending slavery and our sheer survival as one nation. We might ask ourselves whether circumstances created greatness – “the times that try men’s souls.” But it is interesting to dig a little deeper into what kind of leader Lincoln was.

When he developed his cabinet he actually deliberately placed his staunchest rivals in positions of considerable authority, as Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in The Team of Rivals. In his decision making process, he also sought to incorporate the fullest possible breadth of opinion on the major topics of the day. He wanted advice, and he showed a singular ability to transcend any personal vendetta.

Here is an attitude of gathering advice and seeing all sides, but then recognizing that you were still the decision-maker. And Lincoln agonized. Take the attack on Fort Sumter when he needed to decide whether to yield and perhaps appease the South or fight and launch a civil war. History tells us he wrote two sets of orders and carried them both while he worked through the advice and decision. You can see this notion of agonizing over decisions and the toll it took on him personally throughout his presidency.

Lincoln’s communication skills were powerful and clever. He would write out a reasoned argument (for example, before he fired General John Fremont) and release it to the press. This strategy would actually reach individual households with copies, as a deliberate way to shape public opinion, and to ease a difficult and perhaps unpopular decision. He took his words very seriously, and said he was “reluctant to speak unless some good should come of it.” He sought ways to clearly tell a cabinet member or general he was through, and then step back to give the individual a chance to save face. He would write a nasty letter, but always put it in a drawer and make sure the communication was face to face.

Garry Wills wrote a book on Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, noting the ties to the earliest of Greek oratory – the juxtaposition of mortality with immorality, of birth and rebirth – those who gave their lives versus a system of government that shall not perish from the earth. But this deep analysis of Lincoln’s address, which marveled at the structure harkening back to early Greece without basis in Lincoln’s education, also suggests that Lincoln had launched the notion of “natural speech” and plain speech. The Gettysburg address, Wills argued, was the foundation for modern political speech. Without question, Lincoln was a powerful communicator.

Most importantly, Lincoln appeared never to get too far ahead of the people. I don’t know how he did this at a time when information was slow to disseminate.

Scholars say that there is no way to penetrate his personal feelings on emancipation. You see a brooding balance; a realistic appraisal of the nation’s bigotry balanced with a cautious eye to progress. Lincoln argued at one point that his job was not to decide on a nation with slaves or a nation of free men, but in either case to save the union. The Emancipation Proclamation was not where he started; the nation would not have tolerated it. Achieving that goal took multiple intermediate steps. He brought along a nation, by never getting too far out front, and in doing so, he both preserved a union and ended slavery.

There is much to admire about Lincoln’s genius: the way he gathered advice and weighed arguments; his communication skills; and his ability to lead his constituents by advancing at a pace they could follow.

I wonder if Lincoln could have created the national parks, which was ahead of any real public opinion or debate on the values and benefits of conservation. I also wonder if Roosevelt’s uncompromising attitude would have torn a nation apart facing Civil War.

Now, what about Penn State, as we move forward on new areas of excellence, promoting student engagement, the university’s role in economic development, student career success, and the development of a digital education. What form of leadership will work? How shall we make our great institution even greater? And, for each of you, in your areas of leadership, how will you leave this institution, state, nation, globe better?

Is Mount Rushmore a window on leadership worth really understanding?

For me, I do not aspire to making decisions by fiat (even if I am convinced that they are good ones.) I tend to look at it as a weakness when I do cross that line. I also would rather not be tested by crisis like Lincoln, although I recognize that many times we don’t have a choice.

I believe we should all aspire to be able to listen to all sides of an issue, to sense the willingness of the collective to move forward, and to take that step, and make a decision. Our decision making needs to be guided by both sides of an issue, and we need to recognize that it may not be supported by the majority. Above all, as leaders, our aim needs to be to do what we believe is right.

Thank you for listening and my warm wishes for your great success.