I’ve recently been reading about a fascinating time in our nation’s history, more than 100 years ago, the topic, a previously unknown rivalry between the writer Mark Twain and the political leader Theodore Roosevelt.
These two famous, brilliant, highly-regarded and influential men held widely divergent views of America’s place in the world. And the story is instructive, when it comes to understanding what happens when smart, successful, well-intentioned business leaders in our time become rivals.
The turn of the last century brought unfathomable transformation, equal or greater than what we in this generation have witnessed. It was the dawn of the age that would bring automobiles, radio, air travel, and electric lights, and other changes that would issue in modern America. Today we talk about Jobs, Gates and Zuckerman; at the dawn of the 1900s the visionaries were Rockefeller, Edison, Carnegie, Wright and Ford.
In Mark Twain and the Colonel, author Philip McFarland masterfully weaves together two compelling biographies, that of humorist, frontiersman, author, lecturer and newspaperman Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and that of war hero, Rough Rider, easterner and then-Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt. McFarland documents how these two equally flamboyant figures (constantly quoted in the newspapers, admired, influential, and neither at a loss for words) came to develop vastly different views of whether America should be the protector and defender of the world, or a benign presence. Samuel Clemens, always quoted in the invented persona Mark Twain, came to believe our powerful nations should not determine the fate of other sovereign states; Roosevelt, who would become President, held that expansionism was our duty, protected not only to protect this country’s interests but more importantly to bring the blessings of democracy and self-determination to oppressed people beyond our shores.
The similarities were clear. Both men were well-read, intellectual, and worldly. That’s where it ended. Clemens grew up on the Mississippi River in the 1840s with a stern father yet idyllic childhood, until at 11 when that father died, throwing the family into poverty, before ultimately they grew rich selling the land they owned. Roosevelt on the other hand was a patrician, an Easterner born to a Southern Bell and a Northern abolitionist father. He believed privilege compelled one to duty.
Clemens sat out the Civil War in the Western United States and from 1891-1900 lecturing, writing and later living abroad for a decade in Europe. Roosevelt threw himself into the front lines of the Spanish-American War, assembling a choice cavalry of remarkably courageous, disciplined fighters who would be the first to land in Cuba. The Rough Rider cavalry, from all walks of life, charged up Kettle Hill to free the Cuban people enslaved by an oppressive, brutal regime.
Roosevelt’s bravery, heroism and example made him a beloved war hero who was soon nominated as VP in McKinley’s second term. Roosevelt became an expansionist. He believed America had a duty to bring democracy to far flung shores. Clemens’ years away from America made him skeptical of warring to free people. He thought America had no right to intervene; people should determine their own governance. There isn’t time here to share all the factors that shaped these two, but if you are interested, it’s a very satisfying read.
What is relevant to business leaders today is a deeper understand of how rivalries develop. I think back on the times when our coaches have been asked to work with executives that are at at odds, the common theme is everyone is quite frustrated. Why would smart, hard working leaders be so stupid as to let pettiness undermine their projects and reputations? It happens. The reason, beyond ego and ambition, are simply that it takes years to become who we are and it is well imprinted. Life’s experiences define us, and sometimes, divide us. That intelligent, gifted leaders see things through different lenses shouldn’t be a big surprise.
Twain and Roosevelt had only their own axes to sharpen and grind. They didn’t have to work it out; being at odds served them. In contrast, rival business leaders in the same company will wreak havoc.
I have heard that Steve Jobs used to give battling Apple leaders one day to work it out, or be fired. That made the point. It sent the message. But there had to be consequences.
So when and how can you help two leaders work it out?
Here is a five step process the coach can walk them through:
- Acceptance of the urgency of the situation
- Understanding of the consequences of failure to collaborate
- Common objectives that they agree on
- Shared outcomes they can work toward
- Development of a communications plan
This last piece is often ignored, but that is a mistake, because agreements can be ignored unless they are communicated. As I say to the people dealing with a feud, the speed of this process is critical. If you don’t resolve it right now you jeopardize morale, alienate talent, scuttle projects, damage reputations, delay sales, and jeopardize customer relationships.
Get them out or get them a coach. Otherwise, they will not only be “history” you will be left to explain decisions that you don’t want to defend.