Finesse Leadership from Jefferson

When I think of an ideal leader, I often think of someone who is blessed with the gift of charisma. This is your type-A leader, your maverick, who fearlessly blazes a trail forward and compels others to follow by his powerful personality. Leaders in this mold are often gifted communicators. They naturally attract people to join in their cause which they champion with boldness and vision. They fight to actualize their vision into reality with fearlessness and are not afraid of a few hurt feelings along the way. These are your firebrands, like John Adams and Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death."

I am sure you can think of several leaders in your life who have sported this, what we will call “direct-model” of leadership. It is often highly effective.

But after finishing a book on the life of Thomas Jefferson, I am astounded by how effectively he led by other means. Jefferson was not a gifted orator. He was fairly mild mannered and soft-spoken, so much so that when giving his inauguration address in the senate chamber only a few could hear his weak voice. He hated arguments and detested open confrontation. He was also highly sensitive of the public’s opinion of him. In truth, Jefferson was more of a philosopher than a battle general, and definitely not the stereotypical, charismatic, "ra-ra" leader we often expect our leaders to be.

So the question is: how does someone who lacks public speaking skills, who lacks the boisterous "my way or the highway" leadership style, end up re-casting America into a Jeffersonian vision that we still live in the wake of today? How does this man double the size of the United States and usher in a period of growth unprecedented in modern history at that point? The answer lies in the fact that there is more than one way to lead effectively, and Jefferson mastered the art of inflicting his will through less than direct means. In short, Jefferson was smart, and he knew what he was good at.

Meacham writes: “Open political warfare was not for him; he preferred to impress himself on the course of events without bombast or drama, leading so quietly that popular history tends to make too little of his achievements as president.” (Meacham, 352)

Where Jefferson lacked public speaking skills, he was incredibly skilled with the pen. Where Jefferson failed to convince in an intensive debate format, he was incredibly convincing on an interpersonal basis. Jefferson was blessed with a very disarming spirit of personality, and would frequently invite people (allies or opposition) to dine with him. He had such a likeable persona, such a pleasant disposition, such a vast knowledge of various topics--that he could build bridges and find commonality with many of his rivals through personal conversations.  “For all his low key republican symbolism, Jefferson understood that access to the president himself could make all the difference in statecraft—hence his dinners with lawmakers and his willingness to receive callers” (362). So instead of influencing through a declaration of war on the federalists or verbally pummeling his adversaries in a heat of rage, Jefferson would eat with them.

It was not that Jefferson lacked the boldness and drive of some of those “firebrands” in his day (his achievements and his personal letters reveal his incredible internal drive for power) but rather that his boldness and drive were somewhat cloaked. “He was more of a chess player than a traditional warrior, thinking out his moves and executing them subtly rather than reacting to events viscerally and showing it (364). 

With this in mind, Jefferson looked to maintain his advantage where he could dominate--with his pen. Often times he would write personal letters to embolden political friends in their position. Sometimes he would push an ally to do the dirty work for him, delegating what was in his power to someone who was more suited to tackle it. And if he disagreed with something, rarely would he proclaim his disdain to the world; rather he would notify his friends in power of his weighty opinion behind the scenes, galvanizing them to join his side.

The application of all this to us is that there is not one rigid model of leadership. You do not have to be a boisterous extrovert to lead effectively. You do not have to force a square peg into a round hole, because there is no hole. There is no set leadership style that guarantees success, nor is there a set personality formula that you must force yourself to become in order to influence others.

If we are to lead effectively in whatever capacities we find ourselves in charge, we must like Jefferson, first know ourselves. We must know our strengths and our weaknesses, how we have been created, and incline our leadership methods to suit our strengths. This does not mean that we ignore our deficiencies, and Jefferson definitely did not ignore public speaking; but he focused his effort on his skills, choosing to influence from in-direct means. From a distance and with finesse. And it proved effective.


Meacham, John. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Random House. 2012. Print.


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