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Let me start by saying that two things that fire me up are leadership and musicals. (Also on that list are the Philadelphia Phillies and The West Wing, but those are for a blog post on another day…) While my list may seem incongruent to you, my passion for leadership means I tend to see leadership lessons in everything I do (most likely to the annoyance of my friends and siblings). That said, when I was in New York City last week filming some brand new speakers for Leadercast Now (stay tuned!), it was hard to miss the Hamilton hype.
The buzz about Alexander Hamilton recently reignited following the debut of PBS’ new documentary titled, Hamilton’s America, which briefly chronicles the life of the founding father through a behind-the-scenes look at the extraordinary production, Hamilton: An American Musical. The Broadway hit, penned by artistic genius Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on the biography by Ron Chernow, has catapulted its principle actors and creators into Broadway royalty and earned them a variety of awards. But perhaps the person who has garnered the brightest spotlight is Alexander Hamilton himself.
After watching the documentary on PBS recently, I – like many people – couldn’t help but draw parallels from Hamilton’s era to today’s society. Specifically, I noticed several key leadership themes throughout Hamilton’s life: he created an unprecedented vision for himself and put it into motion; he surrounded himself with a solid inner circle that pushed him to excellence; he remained true to himself in moments (sometimes years) of frustration and hardship; he used his failures to spur him to action; he inspired those around him; and he was aware that his legacy would be defined by the standards he held himself to, rather than any immediate success he did or did not see.
Here are three core leadership lessons I gleaned from learning more about the life of Alexander Hamilton. Feel free to fire up Spotify and listen to the Hamilton soundtrack as you read.
Hamilton was born into poverty on an island that was unceasingly ravaged by hurricanes. His father left his family when Hamilton was a small child, and his mother died when Hamilton was a pre-teen. He had to fend for himself as an orphan, using his writing skills and ability to learn quickly. His written account of his childhood garnered enough monetary support from his community to send him to America, where he put himself through college in just two years. Following graduation, Hamilton made a name for himself as General George Washington’s chief aide.
His humble beginnings set him on a path of strong work ethic and the discipline to pursue his initial goal: freeing America from England’s rule and seeing it flourish. While Hamilton’s circumstances could have limited his prospects, his pursuit of excellence created opportunities for him to stand out among his peers.
Hamilton is known to us as the father of the American economy (and the face of the ten-dollar bill). But did you know he was a speechwriter for President Washington? He also wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers that helped pave the way for a two-party system of democracy; he founded the New York Post; he was the first Secretary of the Treasury; he founded the U.S. Coast Guard; he established the U.S. Mint, and he founded the New York chapter of an organization that eventually helped abolish slavery.
Hamilton didn’t get to see the fruits of his labors before his early death at age 47, but his achievements outlived the short days of his life. The beauty is that he did not allow the intention to create a legacy to be the driver of his ambition. Instead, he created and innovated to pursue his ultimate goal of seeing the success of “the American experiment.” In fact, whenever his focus wavered, he made substantial personal and professional mistakes. Staying true to his vision advanced American society and culture for the long-term.
Hamilton lived in an era when his colleagues owned newspapers in order to have a platform for criticizing one another. They would write op-eds and letters, unafraid of the repercussions of their candor. Hamilton was no exception to this – he was extremely open about his dislike for Thomas Jefferson. They disagreed on the majority of their political ideals, and were foes at different cabinet meetings and every election after the democracy was established.
Hamilton felt strongly about standing for something – whether he agreed with the stance or not. He had respect for people who stood their ground and were authentic in their actions. The best example of this was in the presidential election of 1800, in which Jefferson was running against Aaron Burr, who was notorious for flipping parties and had a track record of being wishy-washy with his convictions. After a series of events that left the two candidates tied in votes from the Electoral College, Hamilton put his support behind Jefferson, despite their many differences. His reasoning? As Hamilton’s character in the musical says, “I have never agreed with Jefferson once. We’ve disagreed on, like, 75 different fronts. But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none.”
This moment, as well as Hamilton’s lack of support for Burr in his next campaign for governor of New York, ultimately cost Hamilton his life, as Burr killed him in a duel. But Hamilton stood for what he knew to be true, even if that meant working with someone he didn’t like or agree with for a time, because he believed it was the best approach for the people he led.
Hamilton was far from perfect. History has proven that many of his decisions and opinions were misinformed or implausible. But his conviction to stand for what he believed, his perseverance to overcome his circumstances, and his discipline to innovate for the good of his constituents made him a leader who exhibited many of the values and behaviors of a Leader Worth Following:
Photo credit: Joan Marcus