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I’ve been reading through definitive biographies of the presidents of the United States. For our third president, I chose Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. These are the key leadership lessons I gleaned from this book:

  1. Become an influencer not a dictator.

    “Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.”

  2. Ideas are worthless unless they translate into action.

    “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic.”

  3. Give people hope.

    “He gave the nation the idea of American progress—the animating spirit that the future could be better than the present or the past.”

  4. Make the complex simple.

    “Leadership, Jefferson was learning, meant knowing how to distill complexity into a comprehensible message to reach the hearts as well as the minds of the larger world.”

  5. When you listen, people will know you care.

    “He immersed himself in the subtle skills of engaging others, chiefly by offering people that which they value most: an attentive audience to listen to their own visions and views. Politicians often talk too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think.”

  6. Leaders have to lead.

    “By waiting, Jefferson had made a common political mistake. He had followed the people rather than led them.”

  7. Don’t let the pursuit of perfect prevent you from doing good.

    “This was a key element of Jefferson’s vision: He wrote beautifully of the pursuit of the perfect, but he knew good when he saw it. He would not make the two enemies.”

  8. Remember people over position.

    “To Jefferson, each guest who came into his orbit was significant, and he had little patience—no patience, in fact—with the trappings of rank.”

  9. Big vision will always face opposition.

    “‘I suppose indeed that in public life a man whose political principles have any decided character, and who has energy enough to give them effect, must always expect to encounter political hostility from those of adverse principles.’”

  10. See the best in others.

    “He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience—the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.”

When I read about the political discourse of these early presidents, it makes today’s political environment look tame. I’m grateful for strong leaders that stood the course to shape a great nation.

Photo Credit: NunoCardoso via Compfight cc

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