Lessons on Leadership From the Founding Fathers

January 7, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2019

It isn’t every day that human beings succeed in creating a new nation—let alone one as physically massive as the United States. For that reason alone, some of the leadership principles implemented by the Founding Fathers should be contemplated.

While the Founders made good on numerous principles, I would like to focus on four in particular, drawing from their own words: vision, character and virtue, sacrifice, and humility.

Vision

Leaders are bearers of vision. They are responsible for painting a picture of what an organization, a people, a nation can be that the average member of that group may not be able to see or articulate themselves. A people must have a direction, a focus, a telos, a raison d’être [“reason for being”]. Without it, their energies cannot be directed, which means they will languish in non-use.

That’s why the Founders constantly articulated a vision of what America could be, both before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and once victory in the Revolutionary War was achieved and the new Constitution ratified.

One of my favorite examples, pre-Declaration, comes from John Adams. In a widely distributed essay called “Thoughts on Government,” written just months before the Declaration was signed, Adams articulated a stirring American vision for the colonists—a vision that put America in the context of world history:

“You and I, my dear Friend, have been sent into life, at a time when the greatest law-givers of antiquity would have wished to have lived. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children. When! Before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive? I hope you will avail yourself and your country of that extensive learning and indefatigable industry which you possess, to assist her in the formations of the happiest governments, and the best character of a great People.”

Once the Declaration was signed, and with the British on the point of taking Philadelphia itself, Samuel Adams (John’s cousin) gave a speech after the public proclamation of the document:

“We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom all men alone ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious eye beholds his subjects assuming that freedom of thought, and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come.” [Psalm 113:3, et al]

Likewise, in his first inaugural address as the nation’s new president, George Washington articulated a vision for the United States as the standard bearer of the “sacred fire of liberty”—a metaphor and a vision that continues to stick with us to this very day:

“Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

When it came to a vision for America, the Founders articulated a unique mission. They differentiated America from other nations and times, they pointed in a certain direction, and they called on their countrymen to follow. Clearly, they succeeded.

Character and Virtue

Another principle of leadership many of the Founders lived by was that of character. Were they all perfect? Far from it. But each offered powerful words, to their countrymen, as well as their individual families, encouraging the development of personal character. The Founders knew that liberty and virtue were indissolubly linked. A non-virtuous people could not be free. Thus, to lead the nation toward the vision they articulated, they constantly emphasized the importance of character and virtue.

John Adams wrote movingly to his son on this topic. John Quincy Adams had joined him on his journey to Europe as one of America’s first diplomats. Adams Sr. was intentionally preparing his son for a life of public service—which he would go on to do in the capacity of an ambassador, a secretary of state, a congressman, and a president of the United States. The father wrote to the son as follows:

“But, my dear Boy, above all Things, preserve your Innocence, and a pure Conscience. Your morals are of more importance, both to yourself and the World than all Languages and all Sciences. The least Stain upon your Character will do more harm to your Happiness than all Accomplishments will do it good.”

Washington wrote in a similar way to his nephew:

“[A] good moral character is the first essential in a man, and that the habits contracted at your age are generally indelible, and your conduct here may stamp your character through life. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous. Much more might be added to shew the necessity of application and regularity, but, when you must know that without them, you can never be qualified to render service to your country, assistance to your friends, or consolation to your retired moments, nothing further need be said to prove their utility.”

As for public conduct, Washington was just as firm. Writing to one of his closest friends, Henry Knox, as he traveled to his first inauguration as president of the United States, Washington spoke of his dread of assuming the office, saying the only thing he could promise his country was integrity in his conduct:

“I am sensible, that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them—Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity and firmness is all I can promise—these, be the voyage long or short; never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men. For of the consolations which are to be derived from these (under any circumstances) the world cannot deprive me.”

Countless such examples from the Founders’ writings could be cited to support the assertion that they viewed character and virtue as essential, particularly for those engaged in public affairs.

Sacrifice

An essential principle of leadership is that a leader never asks others to do things they are not willing to do themselves. This necessarily involves the notion of sacrifice, as virtually any long-term goal worth achieving involves giving up something in the present to achieve something greater in the future. This applies everywhere—ask any employee how they feel toward a boss who, when business is rough, takes a cut in pay themselves. They feel greater loyalty to that boss because they know they are willing to sacrifice with those he leads.

Leaders must, therefore, be willing to personally sacrifice and have skin in the game to accomplish their vision—never expecting from others what they themselves are not willing to give.

The American Founders exhibited this trait in abundance. Some of them sacrificed their lives in pursuit of American freedom. Others sacrificed time with their families, their financial fortunes, or simply the pursuit of their own interests in retirement.

Washington, in particular, longed for little more than working on his farm in a peaceful, quiet retirement. Nonetheless, his sense of duty to his country informed him that sacrificing this personal desires for the greater good was what was required of him. He did this several times, most notably when he became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army; when he was asked to preside over the Constitutional Convention; and when he was unanimously elected president—twice—after which he laid aside power to finally enjoy some peace on his farm, after a lifetime of service.

When called out of retirement after serving as commander-in-chief for eight long years (during which he visited home only once) to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington again described his personal sense of duty in the matter:

“I sacrificed every private consideration and personal enjoyment to the earnest and pressing solicitations of those who saw and knew the alarming situation of our public concerns, and had no other end in view but to promote the interest of their Country; and conceiving that under those circumstances, and at so critical a moment, an absolute refusal to act, might, on my part, be construed as a total dereliction of my Country, if imputed to no worse motives.”

Writing to his friend and former fellow officer Knox on his way to be inaugurated (again, something he didn’t want to do), Washington expressed how little he actually desired to be president, much preferring to be on his farm in Mount Vernon:

“[I]n confidence I can assure you—with the world it would obtain little credit—that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.”

Likewise, John Adams, who would go on to become the nation’s second president and was instrumental in getting the Declaration of Independence approved by Congress, wrote back home to his wife that even their child must be willing to sacrifice for the cause of liberty:

“But I will not bear the Reproaches of my Children. I will tell them that I studied and labored to procure a free Constitution of Government for them to solace themselves under, and if they do not prefer this to ample Fortune, to Ease and Elegance, they are not my Children, and I care not what becomes of them. They shall live upon thin Diet, wear mean Clothes, and work hard, with Cheerful Hearts and free Spirits or they may be the Children of the Earth or of no one, for me.”

Likewise, Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, and the mother of John Quincy Adams, wrote to her son on the importance of sacrificing his time otherwise spent on petty amusements and instead spending it on preparing to serve his country:

“I hope you will never lose sight of her interests, but make her welfare your study, and spend those hours which others devote to Cards and folly in investigating the Great principles by which nations have risen to Glory and eminence, for your Country will one day call for your services, either in the Cabinet or Field. Qualify yourself to do honor to her.”

For the Founders, sacrifice and leadership were inextricably linked. The very idea of service necessitated sacrifice.

Humility

Finally, the Founders often articulated and lived by an ethic of humility—a leadership quality too rarely seen in political, corporate, and community leaders today.

Humility is a virtue largely introduced to the West by Christianity. You won’t see the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers articulating “humility” as a virtue.

Humility is basically a sense of restraint when it comes to one’s own knowledge, abilities, or power. Leaders who think they aren’t, or shouldn’t, be constrained by such things tend to plunge headfirst into catastrophe. “Pride goes before the fall,” as the saying goes.

The Founders knew this lesson well, both on a personal and collective level.

For example, reflecting on the situation of the colonies just months before declaring independence, Adams wrote:

“The Management of so complicated and mighty a Machine, as the United Colonies, requires the Meekness of Moses, the Patience of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon, added to the valor of Daniel.”

Adams stood in awe of what was required of him and Congress. He did not suffer from an overbearing sense of confidence. He knew that the times required extraordinary virtue, which by definition must be worked at and acquired. To recognize such a thing was a profound act of humility, and many of the Founders, during those dangerous times, oftentimes engaged in profound reflections on how inadequate to the task they felt.

Indeed, the entire system of government designed by the Founders is predicated on a humble idea of human nature—what it is capable of, and the depredations to which it is subject. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,” as James Madison famously noted.

The Founders were not moved by the utopian schemes that have so often taken in lesser men. They rightly scorned a politics that promised to bring Heaven to earth—they would have had no time for the pipe dreams of a Marx or a Lenin, let alone people who think government is the primary means to achieve all good things in this life. 

In a public sense, many of the Founders often spoke of “republican simplicity.” They wanted leaders who were humble and awed by the sense of responsibility delegated to them by the people. Despite being a rich man, Washington wore a very simple, plain suit to his inauguration to make this very point. He was not a monarch sitting on a throne for life. He was an agent of the people, established by them to guide the nation toward the common good.

Vision, character and virtue, sacrifice, and humility—these four principles of leadership animated the efforts of the American Founding Fathers. If we seek to maintain and improve upon the inheritance they left to us, we ought to remember them, and put them into practice, ourselves.

Joshua Charles is a bestselling author, historian, researcher, and international speaker. He is a passionate defender of America’s founding principles, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the Catholic faith, to which he converted in 2018. He loves telling, and helping others tell, great stories that communicate great truths. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com

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