Lessons even in death
It was a cold, gray January day. The wind picked up the dusting of snow from the ground and flung it into their faces, stinging like needles. Tears froze to wind-burned cheeks. The casket was slowly lowered into the frozen ground. A lone bugler played taps. Slowly, one by one, the people who had gathered, made their way down the 26 steps, down the long hill, and out of the cemetery until a lone figure remained. He stood motionless. His gaze locked on the hole before him. Tears stained his ruddy cheeks. His long coat flapped in the wind. His lips moved as if talking. Was he saying goodbye? Was he saying a prayer? Was he saying words of forgiveness to his now dead friend?
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, died in the early hours of January 6, 1919. Now, two short days later, William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, stood over his grave, weeping. Slowly he gathered himself, blinked away tears, and trudged down the pathway.
Once dear friends and allies, the men had not spoken in the last seven years. Taft served as Roosevelt’s Vice President. Hand-picked by Roosevelt to succeed him as President. During his term of presidency, disagreements arose between the two men. Roosevelt, then out of politics began to counter Taft in the press. Roosevelt, still popular with many, publicly lambasted Taft. The chasm between the two former friends widens as Roosevelt decided to run against Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. The break became insurmountable when, after losing the nomination to Taft, Roosevelt decided to run as a third party candidate, essentially splitting the vote and giving the Presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt shut Taft out of his life with hardly a second thought. Had Taft died first, would Roosevelt stood over his grave?
Yet, Taft made his way graveside that cold day in January. Later, in a letter to Edith Roosevelt, he would write, “I loved him always and cherish his memory.” A love and a friendship that survived, at least for Taft, despite the chasm created by words and deeds.
Reflecting on the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft really causes reflection on my own relationships. Is there someone with whom such a rift is present? Will someone be standing over my grave saying their peace to me or their god? Or, will I be standing over someone’s grave doing the same? It’s not hard to imagine in a lifetime of relationships that we have all been Taft and we have all been Roosevelt. What would you say on that cold wintry day? If you were aware of such an injured relationship, would you try to repair it before the end?
When I first heard the story, my mind immediately leaped to my sister. Our relationship had been fractured for many years. Incidents, actions, and words had created a schism between us that I saw no hope of ever closing. At times it has felt like the Grand Canyon. However, in the last year, we have started, with the help of my wife and my sister’s husband, we have begun to build a bridge. Over time, with continued conversation and understanding, the bridge will be fortified. It isn’t quite a Taft-Roosevelt moment, but it very well could have been.
As I think back over my professional life and reflect on the relationships formed there. Over the years I have had to have many of those “life altering conversations”, either because of downsizing, performance issues, or the dreaded “the company has outgrown you”. I tried to treat each person with respect, dignity, and compassion. Some of those conversations were with colleagues that I considered friends. One such friendship survived the downsizing conversation at two different companies (yes the friendship survived, but I am guessing he won’t come work for me again!). Another relocated his family to accept a job offer from me and a year later we had to have the downsizing conversation. Amazingly to me, that friendship survived as well.
The one relationship that comes the closest to a Taft-Roosevelt relationship (and I am mortified to say, I was the “Roosevelt” in this situation) was with a friend. She and I had worked together for almost to a decade. During this time, we had become very close and developed a deep caring for each other. I can honestly say, I loved her (not in a romantic way, mind you). We shared many of life’s trials, tribulations, and celebrations. As my career progressed and I started moving in different circles, we grew apart. Still working for the same company, but no longer interacting on a daily basis. Some of it was the natural outcome of no longer working together on the same projects, but some of it was intentional on my part to “distance the relationship” as I first became her boss, then her boss’ boss, then her…well, you get the idea. Years passed. Then…then she got sick. Very sick. Dying sick. The day I went to visit her in the hospital, no one was with her. Her husband must have stepped out. The nurses were off doing their nursing-thing with other patients. It was just she and I. The only sound in the room came from the machines attached to her. She was in the final stages and was not conscious. I stood by her bed, stroked her hair, and told my friend I loved her. Did she hear me? Did she know? I was too late.
This series is about leadership and the lessons about leadership I learned while traveling with Teddy Roosevelt. What lesson can be learned from the lone figure alongside the grave? Perhaps the lesson is to value the person, value the relationship, even when delivering bad news, or even when circumstances pull you apart. Lead from a position of empathy for the impact your words and deeds have on those around you. Perhaps the lesson is the old adage “you can be friendly, but you can’t be friends” just isn’t true.
#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt.