Leadership and Power: Jefferson Style

From Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

“Broadly put; philosophers think; politicians maneuver.  Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.  Such is the art of power.” – Jon Meacham

Aside from the general history books and the occasional Ben Franklin quotes, I am relatively new to the founding fathers.  This well written Thomas Jefferson biography was my first dive into the vast ocean of material covering the events of the country’s founding and the men who helped shape it.  I chose Thomas Jefferson to start with because of the scope of what he accomplished during his life and style of how went about it.  He was a master at what is referred to today as “soft power”.  Meacham does a great job of illustrating some of the keys to his success in achieving and keeping this power.

Here are four lessons which we can still learn from today:

1)      Find Your Voice

Thomas Jefferson was very quick to recognize the power of the written word.  Part of his celebrity came from a pamphlet he wrote entitled “Summary View of the Rights of British America”, which was to become the basis for the Declaration of Independence.  This lengthy open letter to King George was eloquent yet succinct; and, while not overtly declaring any desires for separation, was shocking enough to get noticed.  It had the effect of what we would say today as “going viral”, and it put Jefferson on the map of the heavy hitters of the day including George Washington and John Adams.

Jefferson continued to write his opinions in various outlets.  The way he was able to capture the emotion and frustrations of the day, was largely the reason he got tapped to draft the declaration of Independence.

As Meacham describes:

“The Summary View and his other pieces demonstrated a capacity to reflect and advance the sentiments of his public simultaneously, giving his audience both a vision of the future and a concrete sense that he knew how to bring the distant closer to hand, and dreams closer to reality”

2)      Recruit Allies

Jefferson was very apt at analyzing a situation and knowing how it would be perceived.  He often enlisted the help of allies to assist him in battles where he knew his participation would be viewed unfavorably.

In a letter to Monroe, which carried with it pamphlets Jefferson wished to be distributed:

“I wish you give these to the most influential characters among our country men… Do not let my name be connected to the business.”

3)      Court Your Opponents

Jefferson made it very hard for his enemies to truly hate him.  He was non-confrontational by nature and preferred to have civil discussions with opponents versus open, anger-filled debates.  Jon Meacham illustrates this point elegantly – regarding Jefferson’s hosting of many dinner parties:

“There was, of course, a more immediate point to frequent gatherings of lawmakers, diplomats, and cabinet officers at the president’s table. It tends to be more difficult to oppose—or at least to vilify—someone with whom you have broken bread and drunk wine. Caricatures crack as courses are served; imagined demonic plots fade with dessert.”

4)      Know When the Time for Diplomacy is Over

Thomas Jefferson was well known for his art of negotiating and shifting power behind the scenes, but he also knew how to rally the troops.  Walking softly and carrying a big stick only works if your enemies know you are willing to wield that stick in combat.

Thomas Jefferson made his case for force when the time came.

“As our enemies have found we can reason like men, so now let us show them we can fight like men also.”


In terms of a review of the book, as mentioned above, it was very well written, though I found myself drawn in by the clever marketing aspect of the title.  It was mostly a chronological blow-by-blow of Jefferson’s life versus the deeper analysis of his governing and leadership styles as I expected.  I will certainly have to get further into the cannon to tell on a relative basis how it stacks up.  I did find myself being impressed with Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments even though I largely know the history.  And, I found myself loving the correspondence between him and his friends and family which I had previously not been overly exposed.  Here is an excerpt of him writing to his daughter:

“’Of all the cankers of human happiness, none corrodes it with so silent, yet so baneful, a tooth, as indolence,’ he told one of his daughters.  Time spent at study was never wasted. ‘Knowledge,’ Jefferson said, ‘indeed is a desirable, a lovely possession.’”

So while I would not encourage people interested in leadership lessons to run out and put this book on the top of their list, it deserves a spot on mine.

Until next time…

“The Jefferson style – cultivate his elders, make himself pleasant to his contemporaries, and use his pen and his intellect to shape the debate – arm him well for the national arena.” – Jon Meacham


Photo Credit: Navin Rajagopalan via Flickr.com (formatted for size)