I recently finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating, beautifully written history of the Progressive era and the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, The Bully Pulpit (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Among other things, it’s a superb study of leadership that I wholeheartedly recommend to my colleagues in nonprofit and public management.
I found especially interesting Goodwin’s account of President Roosevelt’s use of the “bully pulpit.” According to Goodwin it was the “essence of Roosevelt’s leadership” and “a phrase he coined himself to describe the national platform the presidency provides to shape public sentiment and mobilize action.” The most dramatic example in the book of the bully pulpit in action was Roosevelt’s nine-week transcontinental train journey in 1903, covering 14,000 miles across twenty-four states and territories. Roosevelt had prepared a half-dozen policy speeches, each dealing with a specific issue, such as trusts and the tariff. Goodwin writes that these speeches “were structured with two simple goals in mind: to outline his policies in straightforward language and to establish an emotional rapport with his audiences.”
TR wasn’t the only US president to put the bully pulpit to good use. FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan come immediately to mind as highly effective practitioners of the art of educating and inspiring citizens of the commonwealth. But there’s a danger that nonprofit and public CEOs with far narrower purviews than occupants of the White House will dismiss the bully pulpit as way out of reach – a tool to be exclusively wielded by our national chief executive. I hope you don’t fall into that trap, because over the years I’ve seen many nonprofit and public CEOs – of national and state associations and local organizations – put the bully pulpit to good use in accomplishing critical change initiatives.
For example, a few years ago the CEO of a national association, encountering fierce resistance to a proposed re-design of the association’s volunteer involvement structure, used the bully pulpit to build critical support and reduce resistance to the proposed changes, which were ultimately successfully implemented. In a series of presentations at national, regional, and local meetings, this CEO explained how the changes were in sync with the association’s values and vision, the benefits they were intended to produce, and the practical steps that would be involved in carrying out the changes. And she didn’t rush things; plenty of time was devoted to answering the myriad questions on participants’ minds.
Did it take a lot of time and energy? Absolutely. But the CEO would tell you it was well worth it. In fact, without her mounting the bully pulpit, resistance to change would probably have carried the day.