How 'The Next Teddy Roosevelt' Could Be a CEO

A business leader at the bully pulpit? T.R. would 'roll over in his grave."

Teddy Roosevelt laughing (National Journal)

Two eras eerily similar, the early 1900s and early 2000s: Massive economic change displaces legacy workforces, and new technologies shrink the globe, complicate life, and revolutionize the way people communicate and socialize. Out of one era rose Teddy Roosevelt, the "bully pulpit" and the Progressive Movement to restore the public's faith in social institutions.

Out of today's tumult? So far, nothing as transformative as the Square Deal or the New Deal, and (forgive me, President Obama) no sign of a political leader as titanic as Teddy Roosevelt. We still ask: Who will be the next TR?

The usual assumption is that it will take a political figure "“ a U.S. president, most likely "“ to begin the radical transformation of politics, government and other social institutions, the spade work to launch the next American Century.

But maybe our era's problems are too big for one man or woman "“ outsizing even the president.

Perhaps, as well, these challenges are too complicated to leave solely to the political system, a discredited and constipated relic. It might be that we need to retrofit not just one bully pulpit, but legions of them, manned by leaders of all walks of life: charities, colleges, churches, and even (Lord help us) the entertainment and sports industries.

How about corporate America? That's the question posed by public relations executive Richard Edelman in a presentation prepared for the Davos Economic Forum and shared this week at George Washington University, a short walk from the White House.

His "Trust Barometer" is an annual global poll that measures the public's faith in government, business, the media and non-government organizations such as charities. The results for 2014 are typically grim. Trust in government fell globally four percentage points to an historic low (44 percent), making it the least-trusted institution for the third consecutive year. Few people (20 percent or less) trust business and political leaders to make ethical decisions, to tell the truth, or to solve social problems.

People are clamoring for government regulation to protect consumers from business, according to the Edelman polling, despite the lack of faith in government. Think of it as a fox guarding a fox house.

The thin silver lining is that the public's trust of the business community has stabilized at 58 percent, 14 points higher than government.

"Business cannot interpret these shifts as a chance to push for deregulation as it did a decade ago," Edelman said. Rather, corporate CEOs have an opportunity to fill the leadership void in politics. They could lead the debate for broad institutional reform that meets the demands of a public buffeted by economic and technological change.

Two points about the survey. First, it has the risk of built-in bias, being the product of a public relations firm that hopes to attract business clients. Second, it highlights a credibility gap between business and government that has long existed. So why should you care? Well, the results track with those of independent pollsters, and the analysis of Edelman "“ a thought leader on institutional trust "“ is provocatively counter intuitive.

He says that stepping into Teddy Roosevelt's shoes would require corporate chiefs to expand their focus beyond the bottom line. Edelman's polling reveals that a majority of people believe companies can produce profits while improving the nation's social conditions.

"That is a new bar," he told the audience of corporate advisers and consultants. "You have to go back to your CEOs and say, 'You have to ascend the bully pulpit (because) government has stepped down."

Stepped down? The White House would object to that characterization. Well aware of the Roosevelt-era parallels, Obama is struggling to modernize the presidential bully pulpit after learning that it's harder to mobilize voters behind policies than for elections.

He had Roosevelt in mind when he launched his "pen and phone" campaign, an increase in executive orders (the pen) and outreach to non-political leaders such as CEOs (the phone). Obama believes that, like Roosevelt, he can use the presidential bully pulpit to educate the American public about the nation's challenges and choices, and that, like Roosevelt, his legacy will be completed by successors.

In a new book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin documents how Roosevelt transformed the presidency while expanding the role of government in national life; how Taft built on his predecessor's momentum; and how the new media of their time (the so-called muckrakers) educated and inspired a disillusioned public. In her preface, Goodwin said her goal was to give readers "a better understanding of what it takes to summon the public to demand the actions necessary to bring our country closer to our ideals."

Can corporate executives summon the public to ideals greater than their profits? Yes, they can. Will they? Even Edelman chuckled at the thought. "Teddy Roosevelt," he said, "would be rolling over in his grave."

NOTE: For more from me on the decline in institutional credibility, read "In Nothing We Trust" and "Measure of a Nation: We Are the Change."

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