Ethics Perspective: All Leaders Do Awful Things, And Many Are Awful People: All We Can Do Is Identify Leaders Who We Can Trust To Try Be Ethical, While Having The Ability To Lead


Case Study I: Theodore Roosevelt.

Teddy’s easily my favorite President, both as a personality, a leader, and a human being. Almost all of his flaws, and he had plenty—the excessive animal-killing, the imperialism, the love of war, his sexism and intrinsic belief in white supremacy—are directly attributable to his times and class. He learned, because he was brilliant and intellectually curious. Like George Washington, TR was capable of evolving. He wanted to do good, and like all of us, was on a lifetime journey to find out what good was. Like most leaders who are capable of leading, he thought he had a pretty good idea of what was right, and one that was better than those of almost everyone else.

In at least one instance, however, Roosevelt personality and leadership style led to a terrible injustice.

On August 13, 1906, there was a race-related fight in Brownsville,Texas. It got out of control, turned into a full-scale riot, and one white police officer was wounded while another man, a bartender, was killed. The town blamed the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry stationed at nearby Fort Brown; tensions between the soldiers and the all-white town had been growing since the blacks arrived.  The town produced spent shells from army rifles as evidence of the soldiers’ guilt, and investigators accepted them as incriminating, though they probably were planted.

All the soldiers protested that they were innocent. Their white officers backed up their claims that the soldiers had been in their barracks at the time of the melee.  No military trial was ever held, but a Texas court cleared the black soldiers of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt discharged  the entire regiment without honor anyway: 167 men, but only the blacks; the white officers were not disciplined.  The alleged cause for the harsh punishment was that the blacks had engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” to protect the guilty member of their regiment. Some of the men dismissed had over twenty years of  honorable service; one had fought alongside Roosevelt during the Spanish American War. Many were only a short time away from retirement and vested  pensions. The 168 lost their careers, reputations, and retirement income.

Roosevelt withheld his decision from the public until after the mid-term elections, in which blacks, as expected, voted overwhelmingly Republican. Then TR unleashed his devastating action against the regiment. Booker T. Washington, who considered himself Teddy’s friend since he had been invited to dine with the President at the White House, a historic and groundbreaking honor,  protested in a private letter to Roosevelt, and was thereafter cut off from any further meaningful access.  A United States Senate committee investigated the episode in 1907-08 and upheld Roosevelt’s action. As for the President, he (typically) never acknowledged the injustice of his actions, nor did he explain his reasoning or apologize. Yet some find it significant that he left the Brownsville fiasco out of his memoirs.

In 1970, John D. Weaver investigated the incident and concluded in his history “The Brownsville Raid”  that the discharged soldiers were, as they had insisted,  innocent. This provoked the army to conduct a a new investigation and inspired the U.S. Congress to conduct a new study. The  findings backed Weaver, so in 1972, President Richard Nixon reversed Roosevelt’s 1906 order and Congress  made restitution to the soldiers’ families, and the one surviving member of the regiment.

In short, a horrible episode. As an admirer of Roosevelt, I have been troubled by this chapter in his Presidency for decades. I’m certain that Teddy believed what he did was right at the time, and even felt that he was enforcing a moral code: the soldiers should have revealed who the wrongdoer was, and to Teddy, that was that. Why he was so convinced there was a wrongdoer in the regiment is unknown.

One feature of TR’s personality that made him an effective leader was his certitude and courage in the face of opposition. That same certitude, however, is often the Achilles heel of great leaders, who cannot distinguish those many times when they are right from the few when they are wrong. Tragic episodes like the Brownsville injustice are the direct and even inevitable consequences of the features that make great leaders great. We can’t, or shouldn’t, use individual examples when great leaders are led astray by their usually excellent instincts to condemn their character or devalue their important accomplishments. They should remind us, however, that the price of requiring perfection from our heroes—not even  perfection, but an absence of missteps that we find shocking in hindsight, is to have no heroes at all.

Case Study II: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

From The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II” by Nicholas Wapshott:

One afternoon in the fall of 1937, behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his friend, the businessman, stock trader, and movie mogul Joseph Kennedy, “would you mind taking your pants down?” The request was met with a blank stare. “We couldn’t believe our ears,” recalled the president’s son, James, who had arranged the meeting. “Did you just say what I think you said?” asked Kennedy. The president replied, “yes, indeed.”

James Roosevelt recalled that “Joe Kennedy undid his suspenders and dropped his pants and stood there in his shorts, looking silly and embarrassed.” The president told Kennedy, “Someone who saw you in a bathing suit once told me something I now know to be true. Joe, just look at your legs. You are just about the most bow-legged man I have ever seen.” According to the president, bandy legs were a deal breaker in Kennedy’s bid to become America’s top envoy in London. “Don’t you know that the ambassador to the Court of St James’s has to go through an induction ceremony in which he wears knee britches and silk stockings?” asked the president. “When photos of our new ambassador appear all over the world, we’ll be a laughing stock.”

Kennedy dearly wanted to become the first Irish-American ambassador to London and was not sure whether the president was kidding. After a moment’s thought, he said he could ask the Brits whether tails and striped pants would be acceptable to Buckingham Palace instead of the traditional fancy dress…“You know how the British are about tradition,” he said. “There’s no way you are going to get permission, and I must name a new ambassador soon.” If the Brits were prepared to bend protocol, and Kennedy could get a response within two weeks, the president suggested that perhaps Kennedy could after all go to the ball.

The historian describes this as  “a typical FDR prank to let Kennedy believe he was an intimate, one of his inner circle. But it was also a humiliating ritual that showed who was boss.” I’ll go a lot farther than that. This is the conduct of a bully and a dictator, someone who not only is willing to abuse power but enjoys abusing it. There are few historical figures I am inclined to feel less sympathy for than Joe Kennedy, but the proper response to any leader in a democracy who decides to play Caligula is to tell him to go to Hell. Although the consequences were trivial, FDR’s cruel treatment of Kennedy causes me to regard the man as less admirable and trustworthy than  his distant cousin, even in light of the Brownsville incident.

Of course, I have to accept that despite this damning episode, Franklin was a brilliant leader too.

The intersection of character and leadership is a complex one. I’m still trying to figure it out.



Spark and Pointer: Ann Althouse

Sources: Newsweek PBS, TR Center

26 thoughts on “Ethics Perspective: All Leaders Do Awful Things, And Many Are Awful People: All We Can Do Is Identify Leaders Who We Can Trust To Try Be Ethical, While Having The Ability To Lead

  1. Sometimes I wonder if decisions made by leaders that appear to be a “justifiable” representation of poor character in hind-site might not have been a poor character judgement based on the information that the leader actually had at the moment the decision needed to be made. I’m not saying that is the case in these instances, but it’s pretty easy for us to second guess any decision a leader makes based on hind-site when if we evaluate the decision based solely on the information that the leader had at the moment the decision need to be made we might have made the exact same decision.

    Right or wrong, leaders know that they must face naysayers hind-site judgement of their decisions and yet they courageously step up, make the decision, and take the heat. Sometimes leadership really sucks!!!

    P.S. Delaying the implementation of an already decided important decision until after an election is DECEITFUL and clearly a representation of a flaw in someone’s character!

    • Delaying the implementation of an already decided important decision until after an election is DECEITFUL and clearly a representation of a flaw in someone’s character!”

      Which often has little to do with leadership these days. Even when voters know the sleezy tactics their pet politician is using they vote for them because . . . well, I’m not sure why. Joy Bahar, or Hillary or Lena Dunham (those paragons of honesty and character) could explain it though. Something about the deceitful sleezebag you agree with being better than the one you don’t.

      • For the same reason you cheer for your home team even when you know there was clipping or pass interference, or cheer for the designated “good guy” in a wrestling match even when he results to eye-gouging or hair-pulling or other dirty tactics. Somewhere it got decided that the Democrats are the blacks’ women’s etc. home team.

      • “Joy Bahar, or Hillary or Lena Dunham (those paragons of honesty and character) could explain it though.”

        I don’t think they can explain it, I think they recognize it and abuse it, all the while wondering how the hell it happened.

  2. This is a list that could become as long as the Empire State Building is tall:

    George S. Patton – Master tactician… and martinet who thought the way to cure PTSD was by slapping.

    Robert E. Lee – Great captain who just couldn’t see his way clear to turning against his home state that was on the wrong side.

    Michael Collins – Father of a nation…and architect of modern terrorism techniques.

    Andrew Jackson – First truly modern president who held the nation together…and also author of a near-genocide of the Cherokee.

    Winston Churchill – Arguably the man who stopped the last light in Europe from going out in WWII…and drunk, bully, and all-around bastard.

    John Rockefeller – Great captain of industry…and also ruthless robber baron who drove any number of fledgling industrialists out of business.

    Charles de Gaulle – Savior of France…and the biggest ego ever to sit in the Elysees palace.

    Otto von Bismarck – Iron Chancellor of a united Germany…whose idea of diplomacy was fighting every neighbor his nation had and beating them.

    Kemal Ataturk- The man who made Turkey a modern democratic state…by killing or kicking out everyone who was not Turkish.

    Mobutu Sese Seko – President who arguably saved the Congo from itself…only to become the archetype of the dictator he tried to stop.

    The history we teach kids is full of shining heroes and clear villains…the truth is that man’s nature is far more susceptible to corruption than sanctification, and, while there are many villains of the deepest dye, there are almost no heroes who stood up against them who were themselves without flaws – maybe because they were human, and maybe because to defeat the worst qualities, sometimes you have to use some of the worst. St. Francis of Assisi, Mohandas Gandhi, Jeanette Rankin, and others may have looked like marvelous moral examples, but would have found themselves (and did find themselves) confounded facing true villainy.

  3. My point of view about Teddy Roosevelt who I also think was one of our greatest presidents differs a bit from yours. True, he loved killing big animals but he also established the National Parks Service and absolutely did not want to wipe out species. Imperialistic is not really an accurate way to describe him. The Japanese and Germans had designs on the Philippines and he felt that the Philippines were not ready for self government after the hated Spanish were gotten rid of. As far as being sexist, he was a Victorian. He could not control his daughter Alice though, who openly smoked at a time it was frowned upon I n the U.S. The incident in Brownsville was really a stain on his reputation being somewhat mitigated by his hosting of George Washington Carver and his wife to dine with him at the White House despite strong Southern opposition.

    • This is why I get the idea that some people just skim the posts. This one did mention Booker and his invitation. At least you didn’t say Isiah Washington or Ron Washington, or Washington Irving…

  4. I read once that many great leaders likely are/were/will be sociopaths, simply because not feeling empathy also means not allowing it to short-circuit decision making. However, that same quality in them makes it possible for them to do terrible things. After all, as the saying goes, all people make mistakes, but great people make great mistakes.

    This is a lesson I internalized pretty easily, because high-functioning autism (which I have) is first cousins with sociopathy, and it reminds me that, while my disorder is far from a disability and gives me some significant advantages, I also have to be constantly on guard for mistakes – I have to keep my ethics alarms functioning at all times, simply because without empathy, logic and ethics are the first and last line of defense against doing something wrong or unethical.

  5. The FDR/Joe Kennedy story is interesting. FDR’s behavior strikes me as hazing. What is it with guys and fraternities and being willing to be hazed one year in return for the promise of being able to haze others next year? Very tribal? Maybe leaders are just gifted tribalists.

  6. Roosevelt also was dismissive of the Buffalo Soldiers role in the battle of San Juan Hill, where they and not his unit actually did most of the fighting and won that battle. At first he just down played their role but as time went on he insulted their courage and claimed that only reason they had success was because of their white officers and because he had to force them forward at the point of a gun.

    • Which you would have, I know. A President isn’t a dictator. A President should use that as a test of whether someone is worthy of a high appointment. If they comply meekly and take off their pants (or…what, if they are women?) then you know they can’t be trusted. They are lackeys.

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