Thursday, July 02, 2009

Rejoice evermore: More leadership lessons from John Adams



Most people cry at movies like The Notebook. I weep at death scenes in a miniseries about John Adams.

Yes folks, I did finish the series last night (shocker, everyone died). And yes, when it was Abigail's time, I was approaching wreck status, except that Jacob walked in and I felt like a big dork so I sucked it all up.

But what I couldn’t squelch were my deeper feelings about these people’s lives. For while I talked last week about leadership lessons from John Adams, I am more affected by the fact these historical figures were really ... well, real. They laughed, fought, cried, cleaned, worried, loved, resented, forgave -- in short, were human.

That’s why in this follow-up post, I’m looking at leadership’s more intangible side. Because authentic, lasting leadership isn’t really about strategy or bottom lines -- it’s about relying on our common humanity to see us through.

Let's see how John Adams' life demonstrated that:

* Know when to stick to your muskets.

As president, John faced dicey diplomatic circumstances with France and Britain that threatened to throw the toddling U.S. into another war. He was firm in his conviction to pursue peace, yet everyone -- from his Cabinet to his old friend Jefferson -- disagreed with him. Still, despite being alone and unpopular, Adams stood his ground, and with time the problem solved itself when France became willing to reach a peaceful resolution. Lesson: Trusting your gut is the closest you'll ever get to omniscience.

* Keep your friends close, and the love of your life closer.

I don't know if John and Abigail's partnership is remarkable because it was unusual for the time, or simply because it was the best-recorded. Either way, their relationship and friendship played a huge role in enabling John's achievements -- and he knew it. No wonder he felt bereft when she died. Thankfully, Jefferson returned to John's life at that point, and the "North and South poles of our revolution" came to terms with their lives and deaths -- together. Lesson: Let others into your life so they might fortify you.

* Acknowledge your humanity, and "rejoice evermore" in it.

As John says in the series, "The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, the more anxiously I inquire ... the less I seem to know." In his old age, the blustery know-it-all finally learned humility -- but then took it too far. Rather than appreciate his accomplishments, John diminished his contributions and lost confidence in his worth. Still, an older, wiser John also acknowledged that a satisfied mind could exist beyond earthly wins, and he learned how to revel in the small beauties around him. Lesson: Do all you can, but not to the point of forfeiting your happiness.

If you take nothing else away, remember that John Adams signed the Declaration of Independence when he was 40. He died when he was 90, on the 50th anniversary of the signing. That means he lived more than HALF his life AFTER an event history remembers him most for. And look at everything else he achieved in that time -- a presidency, a family, a marriage, and a life fully lived.

John Adams' life -- like any of ours -- was the sum of innumerable decisions. He wasn't always elegant or smooth in his approach, and he certainly wasn't always right. But he acted nonetheless. And in acting, in moving forward, in just flat out trying, John Adams arrived at history.

So in this week of annual patriotic fervor, I'd like to leave you with words from the man himself that present a noble goal for all of our lifetimes.
There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live. -- John Adams

1 comment:

  1. Julia,
    Another fine post! I truly appreciate your angle in these reviews and reflections and especially as a reminder that our Presidents were/are human... just like us! A belated Happy 4th!

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