The Strenuous Life: 3 Entrepreneurial Takeaways from Theodore Roosevelt’s Famed Speech

When we started our company, we didn’t have an office. It was still under construction. Our landlord gave us a dozen old desks that we set up in the corner of our factory as a short-term workspace. Because of construction delays, we were in the temporary location for more than a year.

The factory had air conditioning but it was always hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The humidity curled our papers and jammed our printers. It was an open office environment, so we were constantly being disrupted by phone calls, discussions and various debates. The factory equipment was an unceasing source of noise as well. In that first year, we made a lot of “friends.” We were visited by ants, spiders, flies and the occasional mouse. It was not an ideal work environment but we managed to get by.

When the construction was finally complete and we moved into our new offices, there was almost a sadness in our team. We had worked together in less than ideal conditions and we had come to enjoy the experience. We appreciated the strenuous life of a start-up company.

On April 10, 1899, just one year after his Rough Riders took San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American war, Theodore Roosevelt delivered his famous speech known as “The Strenuous Life.” The speech was meant to be a wake-up call to Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. He stressed that America’s continued greatness would only be possible through hard work and perseverance.

Much of his speech is applicable to entrepreneurs today. Here are 3 key takeaways:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

Success is sweeter. Entrepreneurial success is considerably sweeter because of how much hard work, suffering and perseverance is required. Moving outside your comfort zone and starting a business is hard. Most startup companies begin with little or no funding which requires owners to forgo salaries, work long hours and operate in makeshift offices. Many startups struggle for years before reaching any level of financial stability. As I wrote in the article, This Start-Up Story is a Must Read for Every Entrepreneur, It took Phil Knight more than 18 years to make Nike a success. Because the effort is significant, every business success is that much more satisfying. In my company, we still ring a bell for every customer order. We celebrate every victory no matter how small.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

The struggle is good. It’s better to face the uncertainties of being an entrepreneur than suffer in a job you dislike. In general, there is stability in working for a large company. The pay is good and there are opportunities for bonuses and promotions. Many people make long careers in big companies without giving it much thought. Countless others, however, dislike their jobs but are afraid of leaving and starting their own businesses. They know that being an entrepreneur is full of risks and success is far from certain. Roosevelt tells us that daring to do mighty things will lead to both glorious triumphs and the occasional failure. The strenuous life of an entrepreneur is filled with emotional highs and lows but it’s better than the dull gray twilight of laboring in a job you hate.

“We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend; but who has those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life. It is hard to fail; but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

Personal growth will happen. The entrepreneurial experience develops grit. Start-up life is filled with uncertainty and challenges. The entrepreneur’s journey requires passion and persistence over the long term. Angela Duckworth defines this as “grit.” In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth explains that grit is the one determining factor as to why some people endure the toughest trials and others drop out. Entrepreneurs develop these qualities as they work countless long days and endure endless trials to bring their ideas to life. Success is only achieved through persistence, passion and perseverance.

Roosevelt fervently believed in the strenuous life. He understood that people are at their best when overcoming hardships and trials. He considered effort and perseverance as essential to building strong character. The entrepreneur’s journey is filled with uncertainty and challenges. The road is long and filled with emotional highs and lows. Failure lurks around every corner and success is far from certain. Yet, these challenges lead to growth and overcoming the odds makes winning that much sweeter. For the entrepreneur, there is satisfaction in daring to do mighty things.

[Photo: Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the top of San Juan Hill July 1898]


Staying on Course: How to Protect Your Mission

As the machinery division officer on a nuclear submarine during the cold war, I had the challenging task of checking the boat for “rattles” before every deployment. This meant climbing down into every part of the hull structure with a rubber mallet and pounding on anything that could possibly move to make sure it was secure. The goal was to eliminate anything that could make noise.

I knew our boat had one mission, to remain undetected and be prepared to launch our missiles if needed. Inspecting the hull structure was simply part of that mission. In fact, everything we did on board revolved around the mission. Our training, our routines and even our footwear ensured we would remain quiet and ready. “Hide with pride” was the nickname we all used to describe our mission.

The military does a respectable job of focusing its people on the mission. This cannot be said for most companies and organizations. If you asked ten employees what the mission of their company is, you will likely get ten different answers. This is because most company leaders assume everyone knows the mission. The sad truth is that no one really knows what the mission is because leaders don’t talk about it. And when the mission is unknown or unclear, chaos reigns.

One of the biggest problems is “mission drift.” Over time, organizations routinely drift from their founding purpose. When a company or organization is young, its founding mission is usually very clear. The founders and early employees instinctively understand the mission and carry it out daily. But, as time goes on and new people are brought in, the mission becomes muted.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst discuss this in their book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. They say that “without careful attention…organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.” Staying on course and protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and conscious effort.

Consider these five actions to keep focused and stay on track:

Start with why. Simon Sinek’s breakout bestseller, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, explains how some organizations are simply more innovative, influential and successful than others. The reason is that their leaders understand and communicate their “why” to their employees. These leaders realized that people aren’t truly motivated by a vision or a mission until they fully understand the motivation behind it. Figuring out your “why” is critical to motivating your team to stay on course.

Know your mission. You can’t expect to be a mission-focused organization if people don’t know the mission. Most leaders incorrectly assume everyone knows the mission. Don’t make this mistake. Communicate and repeat the mission statement every day in meetings and daily discussions. Develop a common language around the mission like we did in the Navy. Make it simple and easy to understand.

 Hire people who embody the mission. Mission-minded organizations know that it’s the people that carry out the mission. This is why hiring the right employees is so critical. Look for individuals who display characteristics and experience that will be essential in achieving the mission. Look for those that will fit the culture of the organization. Leaders should also work with new employees to set expectations early and to monitor their progress.

Make the hard decisions to protect the mission. The real test of a leader is making the hard decisions and staying true to the mission when faced with conflicting priorities. These typically involve employees, ownership, money, customers, suppliers or partners. A leader who protects the mission and makes the tough call to put the mission first will be respected by the team. They will know there is a deep commitment to the vision of the organization.

Measure what matters. What gets measured, gets done. The things you measure should reflect your organization’s mission and objectives. For example, if you want to be the fastest supplier in the industry, measure lead times. If you are trying to become a premier college-prep high school, measure the number of college scholarships awarded to seniors each year. The challenge is identifying the right things to measure. Metrics that matter to your mission aren’t always easy to identify or track. Still, push hard to find something that can be used as a gauge of your success.

Staying on course and protecting the mission is difficult, especially in the long term. Mission drift and conflicting priorities can derail the efforts of any organization. Finding your “why” and communicating your mission on a daily basis to employees will help solidify your focus. Keep your mission in mind when hiring, making decisions and measuring results. Don’t leave the success of your organization to chance.  Protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and deliberate effort.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray/Released]

Building an Unstoppable Team

Last week, I went out to the factory floor to see how we were doing building a critical order for a new customer. From a distance, I didn’t recognize the person packing the units at the end of the line. When I realized who it was, I had to laugh. It was our head of sales. He had jumped in to help get the order out in 24 hours as we had promised. I laughed because I knew there was no way our competition could ever match this level of commitment.

Have you ever noticed that there are some teams who just know how to win? Companies that outpace their rivals, sports teams that dominate their competition or military units that seem to do the impossible. There is something special about these teams that make them unstoppable.

As leaders, our job is to build and lead our teams. Leading teams is one thing but how do you build a team? How do you form a group of employees that will be resilient, persistent and consistently effective? What makes a team unstoppable?

Let me suggest that there are 4 important things to consider when building a high performing team.

Select individuals who have complementary skill sets. This is especially important for small teams. Everyone should have a specific expertise that is required to accomplish the team’s objective. Take, for example, Navy Seals. In each team, there are specialists like medics, snipers, breachers, jumpmasters, dive masters or language experts. Even though there are some overlapping skills, the experts are relied on by the team for success in specific areas of the mission. Look at the team you are assembling. Do they have complementary skill sets? Do they have the combined skills to complete the objective?

Select individuals who have achieved a high level of competency. As a former Naval Officer who served on nuclear submarines, I appreciate the brilliance of the Navy’s qualification program. To be promoted or to assume certain duties, you had to go through a rigorous qualification process. This meant everyone you served with had achieved a high level of competency. This established mutual respect across the team and built a high level of trust. You knew your teammate had the skills to watch your back. To build a great team, you should carefully consider the competency of each team member.

Select individuals who have proved themselves under adversity. As I wrote in the article, The One Trait your CEO Wants You to Have, persistent people are extremely valuable to the success of any team. Look for those special employees who can step up and deliver results regardless of the adverse circumstances. Look for people who don’t quit and have a proven history of perseverance. Look for the engineer who worked two jobs and went to night school for six years to graduate, the veteran who served two combat tours or the plant manager who worked their way up from the shop floor. These are the people who are going to make a difference when things get tough.

Select individuals who are unselfish and have a “mission first” mindset. The success of unstoppable teams resides in the singular focus on the mission. “Mission first” employees understand the objective takes priority over individual goals or career aspirations. Like our sales manager jumping in to help manufacturing, these employees will do whatever it takes to complete the mission. This mindset creates a culture where individuals hold each other mutually accountable to the team’s goal. There’s little room for office politics and egos when the priority is winning.

The objective of leadership is to direct a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  The most important part of that objective is choosing the right people who will make up the team. Selecting employees with the right characteristics, experience and mindset can make the job of winning easier. Unstoppable teams are uncommon because building a great team isn’t easy. You need to find the right people with complementary skills sets who have achieved a high level of competency. Look for individuals who have proven themselves under adversity and can adopt a “mission first” mindset. Putting these people together and leading them well is the key to lasting success.