Lessons in Leadership

John Adams book coverBecause David McCullough’s book on John Adams was the choice for the History Book Club discussion, I began to read this excellent biography one evening a few nights ago, and my sense of excitement grew with reading. Certain themes concerning leadership and John Adams jumped out at me, and I could see how to apply those lessons to contemporary leaders of revolutionary movements.

I came to sense that certain qualities John Adams had as a person also had great significance in his work as leader of the American Revolution. These qualities affected the course of events in the revolution. Through his ability to attach others to his cause in friendship, he became a very influential leader in Congress. 

The role of friendship in organizing the American Revolution demonstrated by the life of John Adams demands to be illuminated by parallels with the activity and style of modern revolutionary leaders. The case of Nelson Mandela seems to be the best comparison in terms of style and aspects of leadership of a revolutionary movement. Both John Adams and Nelson Mandela were effective and eloquent advocates for their cause, in other words, front men. Both were determined to achieve their goal, independence for John Adams and the end of apartheid in South Africa for Mandela. Both were effective in gathering support for their positions among their revolutionary colleagues. Finally, both were chosen to be president of their respective countries after the storms of revolution.

What is the central quality that allowed both Mandela and Adams to rally their fellow revolutionaries to the cause? I think the element is a capacity for friendship and the ability to engage in cooperative action with others based on that friendship. John Adams, although he was known to be a prickly personality, became good friends with a variety of revolutionary figures, including Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. He knew how to attach others to himself and delegate duties to different persons who might be of use even though having very different temperaments from his. This is the essence of leadership.

He suggested that Thomas Jefferson be the designated writer of the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson was known to be an elegant writer. Adams himself, although a published writer, was often long-winded and awkward and knew Jefferson would be better in that role. More fatefully, Adams nominated George Washington to act as general of the Continental Army in a meeting of Congress and lobbied for that choice. John Adams admired martial ability but knew he had none, so he recommended Washington.

Most importantly, Adams was able to persuade others to move toward the necessity of independence in debate because he was also influential informally. He was so passionate and persuasive in debate in sessions of Congress that McCullough states many were “lifted out of their seats” by the force of his persuasive arguments. Yet it was the warmth of his associations with other congressmen and a confidence in his leadership that eventually moved most to his side. Because of his central role was, he was called the “colossus of Independence,” a term that heads one chapter of McCullough’s biography. He was its main pillar. Yet the root of this special role was his ability to connect with others by argument and friendly association. Mandela book cover

In this biography, we learn a few important personal details of the life of the Continental Congress that we might not have known before. Much of the work of the Congress went on in committees that met in taverns around Philadelphia. There was much socializing as well as work in those taverns. There John Adams stayed in the forefront of the work of the committee on the war that directed the battles of the Revolution. The way he accomplished this, according to McCullough, was by patient work persuading others of his strategy and the need for more troops and supplies.

Eventually, John Adams furthered the cause of the revolution by being chosen ambassador to France and the Netherlands, where he secured loans that supported the completion of the American Revolution.

In a similar way, Mandela’s leadership was marked by warm friendships. He formed close associations with his law partner Oliver Tambo and other key ANC members in long discussions in the bohemia of Sophiatown, a slum of Johannesburg where much cultural activity occurred. There Mandela was known as a warm friend and lively conversationalist. In the division of labor of the movement, he was assigned to be the front-man for the ANC giving speeches while Tambo and others led the organization. His spirit of hope and determination influenced the forward drive of the organization through important actions against apartheid, including the Defiance Campaign and the promulgation of the Freedom Charter. He never let up on his determination and optimism or communicating that to others.

Even during the Rivonia Treason trial that led to his long imprisonment, he strategized with friends about how to use that trial to promote the cause of equality, ignoring his own fate. His speeches in court were the most influential of his career. The influence of his eloquence was strengthened by how he kept the ANC and its coalition together with his warm spirit. Even in prison his friendly connections to his fellow prisoners and revolutionaries kept the movement together, and he became the central symbol for the final struggle against apartheid for 30 years for that reason.

In contrast, John Adams lost some of his leadership role in the early Republic when friendships were lost during the controversy over the Alien and Sedition acts during his presidency. Nonetheless, in old age Adams reconnected with Thomas Jefferson through a famous correspondence that confirmed many of the common values that bonded what historian Ellis calls the “founding brothers.” Despite the vicissitudes of his political life, John Adams, in the end, was important to the Early Republic because of his gift of friendship and his leadership role that depended upon friendship. Here we can see one of the central elements of leadership of any movement displayed in the case of both John Adams and Nelson Mandela, as outlined in their biographies. 

--by Paul Sweeney