The Drudgery Of Leadership


There is a monotony to leadership, hidden routines that sharpen one's edge and build capacity.

This truth was brought home as I began reading The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin's latest biographical tome chronicles the lives of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft while also examining the golden age of journalism.

Early in life Theodore Roosevelt had the makings of a brilliant mind but he did not have the body to match. He was beset by asthma and stomach ailments. These health challenges required frequent convalescing. His father, noticing an unhealthy trend toward invalidism, challenged his son:

Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it. Teedie responded immediately, according to [his sister], giving his father a solemn promise: 'I'll make my body.'"

The boy threw himself into a strict regimen of strength and endurance training; week after week, month after month, he lifted weights and pulled himself up on horizontal bars. Methodically, he sought to expand "his chest by regular monotonous motion – drudgery indeed" . . . .  The fierce determination that propelled Teedie to become a serious student of nature, a voracious reader, and a sensitive observer was now directed toward expanding his physical capabilities by refashioning his body. Years would pass before the potential of these laborers would be actualized in adult capacity and physique that made him an exemplar of "the strenuous life."

As anyone who has spent time in the gym knows, exercise is drudgery. The payoff is seen in months not days (years in Roosevelt's case), but the time invested helps builds the capacity that results in better health, more endurance, and generally a stronger state of mind. Drudgery is the hard, tedious and sometimes boring work that must be done.

I think there is a drudgery to leadership. Leaders know they must attended to certain practices with great -- and sometimes boring -- regularity.

Like Teddy Roosevelt's workout regimen, these practices are largely unseen by others. Here are five of mine:

  1. Reading: For me this also includes capturing and cataloging salient notes for future reference.
  2. Exercise in the form of early morning walks and a simple but essential upper-body work out.
  3. Personal quiet time with God: The foundation of my journey with Jesus has been slowing down to read the Bible, apply it to my life, and to pray.
  4. Thinking:  Carving out time to grapple with ideas, plans, and problems is my biggest leadership challenge and an absolute necessity. The swirl of daily activities makes slowing down difficult.
  5. Writing: Writing sharpens my mind and leaves me with a storehouse of treasures I can share with others.

Can I live without those practices? Yes, but without them I will not live well or lead well. On the other hand, when I am engaged in the drudgery of leadership those practices always lead to delight.

What is the hard, tedious and sometimes boring work that you need to be a better leader? Don't neglect the drudgery of leadership.

A man without self-controlis like a city broken into and left without walls. Proverbs 25:28 ESV


"Theodore, you have the mind": Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2013. Page 39. "The boy threw himself": The Bully Pulpit, page 39.