by David Rosenbaum

What We Can Learn from Dead Presidents

Feb 16, 20075 mins

I read a lot of history. I especially like to read about our Founding Fathers— Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison—because those guys were brilliant, passionate, courageous and flat-out nuts.

If they weren’t nuts, they wouldn’t have put their necks at risk challenging the earth’s most powerful nation with nothing but a bunch of poorly equipped, utterly untrained and questionably loyal farmers and tradesmen to back them up.

But, thankfully, they were nuts, each in his own way, and it was their nuttiness that saw them through the tough times and inspired others to follow them.

Take George Washington. Of all the founders, Washington was perhaps the least likely to lead a revolution. For one thing, he was, by the standards of the colonies, fabulously wealthy (thanks mainly to his wife) and therefore he had a whole lot to lose. He was not, like the others, an intellectual; he didn’t write well nor think deep thoughts about the rights of man. His passions were those of the typical southern country gentleman: horseback riding, dancing, farming and interior design. (Throughout the Revolutionary War, he wrote an endless stream of letters back home to Mt. Vernon giving instructions about the molding in the dining room, the exact proportions of the fireplace and the precise shade of beige he wanted in his library.) So why was he universally acclaimed as the Revolution’s one indispensable figure, the man to whom all others deferred?

Because no one hated the Brits as much as he did. Why did he hate them so fervently? There were two main reasons. He once applied for a commission in the British army and was rather cavalierly turned down. That ticked him off. He also knew there was big money to be made by buying land way out west in Pennsylvania. But the Brits wouldn’t let colonists buy land. They reserved that potential gold mine for themselves. So Washington was wounded in his honor and in his purse and these two insults turned him into England’s most implacable foe. His Revolutionary compatriots felt the heat of his mad, undying hatred for the motherland and thought, Yeah, he’s the guy to lead us.

The lesson? Passion. You can’t beat it when it comes to leadership. Without passion, you got nothing.

(Homework: Read Inspiring Minds or The Alchemy of Leadership.)

John Adams, of course, was accounted crazy by almost everyone who ever met him, with the exception of his wife, Abigail. Adams couldn’t shut up, never forgot a slight and spent most of his life brooding about what he considered Jefferson’s unearned reputation as the Father of Independence. Adams was also jealous of Franklin, whom he considered a disreputable, egotistic blowhard. In fact, Adams was tortured by just about everything, which may be why he was utterly indefatigable, working constantly to advance the cause of the Revolution, working though other men, the mind and hand behind just about everything that made the Revolution successful, including naming a militarily inexperienced Washington to lead the army and a rather undistinguished Jefferson to write the Declaration.

Of course, Adams made a monumental error when he finally became our second president. He decided to keep Washington’s cabinet intact instead of filling it with his own men. The result? They conspired against him, especially his Secretary of State, Tom Jefferson, who wouldn’t even stay in Washington, spending Adams’ term in office sulking at home in Monticello.

Leadership lesson? Surround yourself with people you can trust.

(Homework: Read How to Build a Great Team, Putting People in Their (Right) Place or Survivor: The Organization.)

Thomas Jefferson. He was a real piece of work. Here was a guy who wouldn’t recognize the truth if it bit him in the butt. Here was a man who declared slavery a terrible thing but worked to preserve it and, unlike Washington, forgot (oops) to free his slaves upon his death, even the woman who was his mistress and with whom he had children. Jefferson paid men to write and publish slanders against Adams and then denied it. He was rabidly partisan while decrying the evils of party politics. He applauded the terror in France during their revolution and said, chillingly, that the tree of liberty needed to be watered with the blood of patriots. (Of course, he never fought in any battle, ever.) Most of all, Jefferson railed against the power of government, saying the best government governed the least, and portrayed himself as the sworn enemy of all authority.

Then, when he became our third president, he engineered the largest land acquisition in the nation’s history—the Louisiana purchase—asserting the right of the government to possess all the land west of the Mississippi.

Leadership lesson? It never hurts to be flexible in your convictions.

(Homework: Read Adapt Yourself to Lead or Leader, Fix Yourself.)

The stories could go on and on. The scarily smart Hamilton got himself killed in a silly duel a few months after his own son got himself killed in an equally silly duel. Franklin, who was (deservedly) the most famous American in the world, devoted a good part of his life to seducing French ladies and basking in the glory of his own reputation. Today, we’d call Madison a policy wonk, and if we were feeling less generous, we’d call him a treacherous, scheming racist.

Leadership lesson? It takes all kinds. Leadership is not a normal state. Most people are followers. Those who presume to lead them are different and people expect them to be different. So forget about being a straight arrow and get down with your weird self.

History lesson over. Class dismissed.