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“The Man in the Arena”: Reality vs. Myth

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 31, 2022

After leaving office, President Theodore Roosevelt toured Europe where his colorful, forceful personality made him immensely popular. During his travels, he made a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 10, 1910, titled “Citizenship in a Republic.” The speech was popular, remaining influential to the present day. One long-remembered element of the speech was Roosevelt’s reference to the importance of “the man in the arena.” While for a republic to function, everyone must play a role, he argued we should never discount the courage and effort of the man in the arena who did the actual work, disregarding the commentary of critics who viewed the activity, but did not participate. This message has been embraced by many over the past century, focusing on the courage and effort necessary to create change. There is a strong element of truth in this message, but as with many messages, it has the potential to become distorted. Understanding the reality versus the myth can be a critical factor in applying Roosevelt’s dictum in our own agencies, supporting not only effective and innovative approaches, but one’s responsiveness to the needs and expectations of all stakeholders. The myth, left uncorrected, might contribute to organizational chaos and dysfunction.

The Myth

There are two perspectives of the myth. No system remains stable. External and internal pressures to change build continually. These pressures compel change, with the necessary changes sometimes being dramatic. This requires innovation, experimentation and risk. The myth suggests “the man in the arena” must be free to do as he wishes, ignoring those with differing views if the change he envisions is to be successful. There is an alternative perspective on “the man in the arena,” where the individual is completing work which is mundane, repetitive or unpopular, when the individual performing the work assumes the mindset of “I’m doing it, you’re not, so it is none of your business.” With either of these perspectives, we see two shared themes. First, “the man in the arena” is an independent agent, performing tasks in isolation, as if collaboration were entirely unnecessary. Second, the myth suggests “the man in the arena” is unaccountable to anyone, which in the public sector is problematic given our foundational purpose is meeting the needs and expectations of the community in an effective, efficient and responsive manner. Responsiveness suggests we heed the voices of our communities who are, in reality, both our employers and our customers. The myth might contribute to public agencies pushing out services they wish to provide, not permitting the communities to pull from us the services they desire.

The Reality

The reality of public service is, we exist to provide the communities we serve with the services they desire. This requires us to actively seek out input and feedback from the community on activities we are planning, conducting or have completed. It is difficult, if not impossible, to hit a target if we do not know it. Without this information, we are “shooting blind.” This concept is entirely antithetical to the myth of “the man in the arena,” where the voices of others are ignored. We must also reflect on the reality of our professional environment. Public agencies face complex challenges with limited authority and resources, within a network of local, state and federal governments. Few agencies, if any, have sufficient authority or resources to address any challenge without collaboration. This suggests that “the man in the arena” must never ignore the voices of others, acting independently, because this would be the path to failure. Instead, it might be better to consider public service more of a live “improv” act where the audience calls out suggestions and the actors do what they can, working with and supporting one another, to entertain the audience, judging their success from the reactions of the audience itself. This indicates the actors are hitting their target, providing the audience with what they collectively desire. This should always be our aim.

Organizational change is challenging and arduous. Certainly, we need to support those who champion the process, who toil in it and who struggle to maintain the change once it has been achieved. However, as public administrators we must always remember two key points. First, we are networks of people within an agency, nestled within networks of agencies. We do not work in isolation, one person against the world, so “the man in the arena” is in some ways a myth. It is not one person in the arena—it is a group performing for an audience. Second, the audience is the community we serve. We are there to meet their needs and expectations. This means we must listen to them, respecting their voices, reflecting on their input and feedback regarding our performance. If individuals in public service see themselves as individuals “against” the world, we are likely to see chaos as everyone acts as they wish, failing to concern themselves with the views of the communities they serve.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty in Grand Canyon University’s DBA program. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected].

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