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Robert Moses and the Oxygen of Pure Competence

Do you know anyone that’s really, really competent? Like really, ridiculously competent?

They seem to have a work ethic that’s twice as powerful as yours, they get things done as asked, going “above and beyond” the call of duty almost always, and always within a reasonable time. They come up with creative solutions, or absent that, simply know how to get to a solution to keep the process moving. They keep going when others stop.

They’re Competent, with a capital “C”.

Now ask yourself, regardless of the other traits you like or dislike about them, is that person at risk of losing their job, whatever it may be? Are they at risk of “wallowing in the shallows” in life? Are they at risk of true, debilitating failure? Or are they just getting ahead time and time again?

I’m going to guess the latter.

There’s something about the pure and simple “getting things done”-type ability, the pure hustle, which acts like oxygen for most organizations and teams, making the people with that ability super-useful. These super-productive, super-able people, almost regardless of their other traits, seem to rise to the top. (Although, multiplicative type thinking tells us that it depends on how severe the lacking traits are. A drinking problem can kill even the best, for example.)

For the man we’ll study today, the “pure oxygen” of competence outweighed so many awful traits that it’s worth figuring out what lessons we might learn for ourselves.


The inimitable Robert Moses was maybe the most powerful man in the history of New York City, responsible for building a large number of the beaches, bridges, tunnels, highways, parkways, and housing developments we all recognize today. Just pulling from Wikipedia the number of artifacts in New York City named after the guy shows you his influence:

Various locations and roadways in New York State bear Moses’s name. These include two state parks, Robert Moses State ParkThousand Islands in Massena, New York and Robert Moses State Park – Long Island, and the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam in Lewiston, New York. A hydro-electric power dam in Massena, New York also bears Moses’ name. These supply much of New York City’s power. Moses also has a school named after him in North Babylon, New York on Long Island; there is also a Robert Moses Playground in New York City. There are other signs of the surviving appreciation held for him by some circles of the public. A statue of Moses was erected next to the Village Hall in his long-time hometown, Babylon Village, New York, in 2003, as well as a bust on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.

By the time Moses’ reign was done in New York City — he held some form of influential power between 1924 and 1968 — he had built seven of the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its boroughs, at least a dozen major roads that would be familiar to all New York area drivers today (416 miles of parkways), over 1,000 public housing buildings, 658 separate playgrounds, scores of dams, State Parks, and beaches (including Jones Beach), Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center…the list goes on. He was the dominant force behind all of them.

His physical — and in many ways, social — mark on New York City is unmatched before or since.

Oh, and did I mention he accomplished much of this during the Great Depression, a time when no one, cities least, had any money, finding incredibly creative ways to corral Federal funds to New York and away from the country’s other great cities? And did I mention he was able to do it without ever winning any elections?

That is “capital-C Competence”.



But the thing about Moses is that he was kind of a bastard. He did not treat others well. He didn’t seem to care about making others feel good. He certainly did not follow the popular Dale Carnegie type behavior popular back then. Most of the people he had to work with over the years — Governors, Mayors, Commissioners, thousands and thousands of employees — did not like him.

If I described some of his personal traits to you — verbally abusive, racist, classist, demanding, elitist, difficult, insufferably arrogant — you would not conceive of this as the stereotype of someone you’d help rise to power. He “drove” his men, and he “commanded” those around him. He rarely passed up an opportunity to make a new enemy.

As an example, here’s how his biographer Robert Caro, in his classic book The Power Broker, describes the general feeling when Moses is named New York’s Secretary of State in 1927 by Governor Al Smith, his main ally:

The depth and unanimity of the feeling transcended party affiliation. Moses had for years been either insulting or ignoring legislators of both parties. And now the Legislature was being asked–for under reorganization the Senate had to approve key gubernatorial nominations–to approve the elevation to the second most important post in the state. One observer says: “When he walked down a corridor in the capitol and passed a group of legislators, you could see their eyes follow him as he passed, and you could see how many enemies–bitter, personal enemies–he had. I really believe that Robert Moses was the most hated man in Albany.

How did a guy like that get the elevation needed to become the Secretary of State, the State Parks Commissioner, the Triborough Bridge Authority, the city “Construction Coordinator,” the Long Island Park Commissioner…? He had more titles than a bookstore, all carrying tremendous power to direct the public purse, hand out thousands of jobs, and physically shape the most important city in the country. 

Pure and simple, the guy was insanely competent. He could get things done that no one else could get done. His administrative abilities were brilliant and his work ethic legendary.

His written reports, starting with his Oxford PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain, were considered classics of the field. The brilliance of that thesis probably got him his first appointments. The following was said about Moses only in his mid-twenties:

Two men who had read Moses’ thesis — it had been published — were Luther C. Steward, first president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and H. Elliot Kaplan, later president of the New York civil Service Commission and executive director of the Civil Service Reform Association. Years later, when Kaplan had read everything there was to read on civil service, he was asked to evaluate the thesis and said simply, “It was a masterpiece.”

There were, he said, “very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew.” Steward’s wife, who had been working beside her husband in 1914, was even more emphatic. “Bob Moses wasn’t one of the men in this country who understood civil service best at that stage,” she said. “He was the man who understood it best.” 

He didn’t just understand it well: He was the best. 

Then again, when Moses got his career started in New York City municipal government, he wrote a report basically alone and in a small apartment (he didn’t have a lot of money), late at night while keeping to his main duties by day.

It was another classic. Speaking of Moses’ 1919 Report of the Reconstruction Commission to Governor Alfred E. Smith on Retrenchment and Reorganization in the State Government, Robert Caro writes:

From the moment on October 10, 1919, that it was published, it was hailed as a historic document, not only by [Al] Smith, who had sponsored it, and not only by the reformers, who saw in it the finest exposition of their philosophy, but, more importantly, by the men Belle Moskowitz had hoped would hail it– the Republican “federal crowd.”

The paper was hailed as “deserving of unreserved approbation,” while another commenter said “This paper is, I think, the most helpful one that I could put in your hands…to give you an idea of…what I believe to be the correct principles of state government.”

With that, Moses got pushed ahead again.

Time and again this would happen: Moses would do something extremely competent, demonstrating great value to this who needed his work, and he would get a boost.

And did he ever work his ass off to keep things moving. As he gathered momentum building up Long Island and Jones Beach State Park in the 1920s, his life became, as Caro puts it, an “orgy of work.”

Sloughing off distractions, he set his life into a hard mold. Shunning evening social life, especially the ceremonial dinners that eat up so much of a public official’s time, he went to bed early (usually before eleven) and awoke early (he was always dressed, shaved, and breakfasted when Arthur Howland arrived at 7:30 to pick up the manila envelope full of memos).

The amenities of life dropped out of his. He and Mary had enjoyed playing bridge with friends; now they no longer played. Sundays with his family all but disappeared. He did not golf; he did not attend sporting events; he was not interested in the diversions called “hobbies” that other executives considered important because they considered it important that they relax; he was not interested in relaxing.

…there was never enough time; minutes were precious to him. To make sure he had as many of them as possible, he tried to make use of all those that most other men waste.

And it was this “orgy of work,” combined with a dedication to being the “best” and not “pretty good” that allowed Moses to rise in spite of his faults.

Even his true enemies, people who truly did not like him or want to see him succeed, like FDR — who was the Governor of New York during the Depression — continued to support his rise, almost against their own will!

Not only does a Governor not interfere with an official like Robert Moses; he heaps on him more and more responsibilities. No matter what the job was, it seemed, if it was difficult Roosevelt turned to the same man. During 1930, 1931, and 1932, Moses handled more than a dozen special assignments for Roosevelt and produced results on every one. And if increasing Moses’ responsibilities meant increasing his power–giving him more money to work with, more engineers, architects, draftsmen, and police to work with–well, the Governor simply had no choice but to increase that power.

No two men in New York would come to hate each other more than Moses and FDR, yet there was FDR, dumping more and more power and more and more work into Moses’ lap. Why?

He could be trusted to get it done and do it well. It was that simple. Competence is oxygen.


This aspect of the life of Robert Moses, a life worth studying for so many reasons, illustrates a few simple points.

The first is the pure value of capital-C Competence: Hard, correct work, repeated ad infinitum with no intermittence, will get almost anyone very far, even if they’re missing other desirable traits. Moses, in spite of faults that would likely stop any mortal in his or her tracks, rose near the very top on the back of it. You can probably think of ten other individuals in your head who demonstrate a similar reality.

But as interesting, true, and instructive as that is, it brings up a very interesting historical counterfactual:

What if Bob Moses had that driving competence but also folded in things like humility, empathy, good temper, fairness, desire for group success over individual gloryand other traits we all desire in our own leaders? Wouldn’t he be considered one of the most inspiring and beloved figures in the history of the United States? Might he have been the President instead of FDR? Might he have lived a much more pleasant and less contentious life than he did?

A great debate lingers even now about whether his actions to reshape the City were on balance a positive or negative — he created a lot of misery in his march to physically reshape New York City. He made it a very car-heavy, traffic-heavy city. He created slums. He destroyed a lot of neighborhoods. And so on. Might a bit of humility and respect for others’ goals and opinions have built a New York City that people are less troubled about today? He could have a record of accomplishment and the unabashed respect of history.

It’s hard to know — traits like Moses’ work ethic are often “co-located” with traits that are not so desirable. But it is interesting to ponder, for our own lives, both the value of pure ability and the value of balancing it out with the other traits that can get us even further. Good is not always optimal.

And most of us probably don’t have the pure ability and fire that Moses did, all the more reason to work on our “soft” skills. We may need to either work harder on our competence and work ethic or find a way to compensate for it in “softer” ways like true leadership ability.

But even as we do that, it’s important to never forget the reality that competence and hustle go pretty far. Sometimes we’re getting “beat” simply because others are providing more “oxygen” than we are, even if they’re not pleasant people. It’s just a part of reality.

So if we’ve already got the “soft skills” down, perhaps we need to do the hard work in figuring out how to raise our competence level.