Big personalities and diminutive successors

The results of the Presidential election in 1911 witnessed a truly historic event. The “Bull Moose” party, the party of Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, and his progressive movement won six states. The Republican candidate, the honorable President Taft, standing for election won only two states. Of course, the winner of this contest was the Democrat candidate, Governor Woodrow Wilson, winning the remainder of the states and therefore the electoral college (but that’s a story for another day). Today we turn to look at the success of the Bull Moose party, which 3 months prior to the election, did not exist.

Many historians, those more learned, more studied and indeed more intelligent than I will tell you that it was the progressive movement itself that garnered such success in a short period of time. To be fair, after 7 years of Teddy Roosevelt in the White House and dozens of reporters bringing the travesties of the working class to the public eye, the American populace was indeed primed to encourage a progressive movement. However, to put all of the success of the Progressive party behind the occurrences of the time period is largely reductionist. In truth, the progressive movement and the “Bull Moose” party owe their existence – both the stated ideals of the progressive movement and it’s high profile life in the press – to the man who before the election of 1912 was known as Teddy.

In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt joined President William McKinley as his Vice President. In September of that same year President McKinley was assassinated leaving his vibrant and high-profile (not to mention young) Vice President to assume the highest office in the land. Any student of history knows that Teddy Roosevelt was a man constantly on the move. In the White House, Teddy proved this to be truer than ever. Quickly taking the mantle of the Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt defined the office for himself. Quickly advocating for the progressive ideals he had long fought for, Teddy became one of the most beloved and popular men of his time.

Using mere words will fail to ever properly detail the popularity of the Teddy Roosevelt. Everywhere he went crowds and cities quickly turned to celebrate his arrival and the messages he brought. His popularity and astute understanding of the media allowed him to achieve great success on the back of progressive ideals. When he refused to stand for a third term in 1908 (fearing the Constitutional ramifications) President Roosevelt reached out to a fellow progressive in his cabinet, William Howard Taft.

A longtime friend, Secretary of War and progressive thinker, in 1908 Teddy believed Taft to be the protegé needed to continue progressive policies in the White House. Teddy compelled Taft to run, endorsed him wholeheartedly as the man to continue the progressive movement in the White House and was pleased when the people endorsed Taft as he did. Therefore Theodore Roosevelt left the country for 12 months on a safari believing his cherished ideals to be in good hands. At the end of his safari, Teddy returned and found the actions of his chosen President wanting. He took up the progressive mantle and began to run for the white House. In 1911, the Republicans nominated Taft leaving Teddy to set out on his own creating the progressive party, widely known as the Bull Moose party – the new symbol of Theodore Roosevelt.

And now we arrive at the point of this particular jaunt through history; the biggest and best personalities, the ones which find the most success in the world are often undone by themselves. Rarely can these personalities deal with someone else leading the cause or institution to which they gave so much to create, yet that is indeed what is necessary. You see in this example, the progressive movement lived (perhaps not happily, but successfully) within the Republican party. Taft was elected as the heir apparent to the progressive movement in the White House, the people overwhelmingly supported him in this role and it was not until Theodore Roosevelt, sensing an opportunity returned to politics and robbed both the progressives and the republicans of popular support.

Therefore the lesson of the day? If you are truly intent on building or creating something great, or your organization is built around a gregarious personality be sure that the successor is in place and then let them do the work that needs doing. It is often diminutive personalities that follow these big personalities. Indeed, this is the key to success for a movement or organization. If this creation has legs of it’s own, a diminutive successor allows the organization (not the personality) or ideal to flourish. Perhaps if Teddy Roosevelt had remained the Teddy Bear instead of becoming the Bull Moose, the Republican party would look different today. Seeing as he did not, the progressive movement fell to the Democrats and the Republicans were lost on the national scene for some time, simply because Teddy loved the stage too much.