Thomas Jefferson on Leadership

An excerpt from Thomas Jefferson on Leadership


Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly what you might call a born leader. He was shy and wary of crowds. He was not particularly attractive; he was gangly and given to slouching. In school he had a reputation for preferring his books to a night on the town. He wasn’t especially charismatic. He disliked public speaking, an it showed. He was much too sensitive, and he often paid for it. He could be moody and emotional. He could be almost paranoid at times. He was often struck with self doubt. He liked to be a homebody, and a lot of the time he just wanted to be let alone.

Yet Jefferson was undeniably one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, Secretary of state, ambassador to France, and founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s extraordinary life and accomplishments inspire men and women around the world to this day. A skilled statesman, philosopher lawyer, scientist, musician, architect, writer, and farmer— Thomas Jefferson was among the brightest and most learned men of his generation. His leadership was, and continues to be, critical to the success of this great experiment in democracy we call the United States.

This shy, temperamental, bookish man overcame his personal limitations to become one of the most exemplary and influential leaders in world history. There is a great deal that each one of us can learn from his example.

For most people, leadership is an acquired skill. Everyday men and women with enormous personal strikes against them have dared themselves to take on the challenge of leadership and have often succeeded beyond all expectations and have inspired others by their example. Some individuals do seem to be born with natural leadership abilities— people are drawn to them; they have a talent for inspiring us; they exude confidence; they instinctively know how to make things happen. But the rest of us have to study and practice leadership skills before we attain the status of a leader. Acquiring those skills means dedicating ourselves to greatness in our families, in school, in our chosen fields of endeavor, in our communities, and even as a nation.

Like most people, Jefferson was not a born leader, but throughout his life he was certainly willing to learn. He challenged himself at every turn, committed himself to gaining the knowledge and skills that he believed would make him a better human being and in turn inspired others to do so as well. That’s ultimately what the American Enlightenment was all about: opening the mind to new ideas and challenges, and making a sincere effort to improve the lot of humankind. Learning to be a leader was an integral part of that formula.

That is the first lesson of Thomas Jefferson’s exemplary life. Leadership is not limited to those few who come by it naturally. Leadership can be learned.

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