Disciplines That Define Us


Rough Rider - Ravenous Reader

Theodore Roosevelt, the hard-charging leader of the Rough Riders, was also a ravenous reader. This discipline started early. At just nine years of age, Roosevelt traveled to Europe with his family. It was a lengthy journey lasting more than a year. It was also time well spent. The young Roosevelt read fifty novels by the end of their trip. [2]

In Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris reveals even more of the disciplined reading habits of the man who served as the 26th President of the United States. It was early November, 1903. Roosevelt had been President for just two years. As his train pulled out of Jersey City bound for Washington, Roosevelt was facing six hours of travel. He remembered that Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, had asked him for a list of recommended books. Morris writes: [3]

"It seemed like a strange request, coming from the President of Columbia University, yet deserving of a full answer. He cast his mind back over what he had read since taking oath of office, and began to scribble":

  • Parts of Herodotus
  • The first and seventh books of Thucydides
  • All of Polybius
  • A little of Plutarch
  • Aeschylus’ Orestean Trilogy
  • Sophocles’ Seven Against Thebes
  • Euripides’ Hippolytus and Bacchae
  • Aristophanes’ Frogs
  • Parts of The Politics of Aristotle

All the above were translated works. However, he read the following in French:

  • The biography of Prince Eugene of Savoy
  • The biography of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter
  • The biography of Henri Turenne
  • The biography of John Sobieski
  • He had also browsed, if not deeply studied, Froissart on French history, Maspero on the early Syrian, Chaldean, and Egyptian civilizations,
  • “And some six volumes of Mahaffey’s Studies of the Greek World.”

What else?

  • The Memoirs of Marbot
  • Bain’s Life of Charles the Twelfth
  • Mahan’s Types of Naval Officers
  • Some of Macaulay’s Essays
  • Three of four volumes of Gibbon and three or four chapters of Motley
  • The battles in Carlyle’s Frederick the Great
  • Hay and Nicolay’s Lincoln
  • The two volumes of Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings ("these I have not only read through, but have read parts of them again and again")
  • Bacon’s Essays
  • Macbeth
  • Twelfth Night
  • Henry the Fourth
  • Henry the Fifth
  • Richard the Second
  • The first two cantos of Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • Some of Michael Drayton’s Poems ("there are only three or four I care for")
  • Portions of the Nibelungenlied

Roosevelt completed this reading in just two years time. He did this while running the country -- and without a Kindle.

Takeaways and Admonitions

What can a leader learn from a President who was a life-long reader?

1. Read broadly

Biographer Henry Pringle said, "Roosevelt was an omnivorous reader," meaning his reading encompassed a wide variety of subjects.[4] A full reader makes a full leader. We all have special interests, but reading broadly enhances our ability to understand and engage a broader group of people.

What can you do to broaden your reading?

2. Read with disciplined consistency

Theodore Roosevelt did not waste time. Morris notes, "Every stop a speech, or two or three. Every bypass a balm for the tired throat, a respite for reading.[5] An article, "The Powers of a Strenuous President" in The American Magazine (April 1908), includes the following:

No railroad engineer runs more sharply on schedule than he. His watch comes out of his pocket, he cuts off an interview, or signs a paper, and turns instantly, according to his time table, to the next engagement. If there is an interval anywhere left over he chinks in the time by reading a paragraph of history.[6]

Too many people waste precious minutes to check email, update Facebook or Twitter, or play a game on their mobile device. Roosevelt teaches me to read with disciplined consistency.

Take a look at your schedule. Where can build in a "reading hour" or squeeze in even a few minutes to read?

3. Above all, read the Bible

Reading is rewarding, but there is no reward like the one God gives for reading and meditating on his Word.

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 ESV

"In all that he does, he prospers." No other author can make that promise. Not Sophocles, Euripides, Bacon, or Milton.

How much time are you devoting to reading and meditating on the Word of God? Are any changes necessary?

Disciplines That Define Us

Roosevelt loved to read. It was a discipline that defined his life. How might your life and leadership improve with more attention to this discipline? What step can you take today?


[1] Edmund Morris. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House. 2001. Page 10.

[2] Henry F. Pringle. Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace And Company. 1931. Page 24 (Diaries, p. 45).

[3] Edmund Morris. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House. 2001. Pages 285-286. (Letters, vol 3, 642. The catalog of TR's reading is taken from his letter to Butler, reproduced in Letters, vol 3, 641-44).

[4] Pringle, page 473.

[5] Morris, page 140.

[6] Morris, page 733.