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Category Archives: Leadership

Attributes, qualities and characteristics of leadership according to Thomas Jefferson

Serve not at my command but only as you see fit.

If I can at any time be of any Service to you, I hope you will command me, and permit me to assure you, it will give me unmixed pleasure to Serve you at any time
William Clark, Louisville, to Thomas Jefferson, June 8, 1808

… the world has, of right, no further claims on yourself & Govr Lewis, but such as you may voluntarily render according to your convenience or as they may make it your interest.
To William Clark, September 10, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Extraordinary leadership earns one the right to say no.
In 1803, President Jefferson commissioned his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead an expedition of discovery though Louisiana and on to the western sea. Lewis wanted a co-commander, and he chose a close friend from army days, William Clark of Kentucky. Together, the two men successfully completed Jefferson’s assignment, leading a company of about 30 in a danger-filled 2 1/2 year journey through the wilderness to the Pacific Ocean and back.

After their return, the President named Clark Brigadier General of the militia and principal Indian agent for northern Louisiana. In his 1808 letter, Clark told the President he was about to leave for St. Louis to take up his new duties. He offered, with “unmixed pleasure,” to be at Jefferson’s command for any future service.

Clark’s letter was delayed 13 months in its delivery, and it was three more months before the retired President could respond. He turned aside Clark’s offer to serve wherever commanded. The service he had already given his country earned Clark the unqualified right to say no, unless it was convenient or personally desirable for him to say yes.

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THIS part of the job is easy. THAT part is very hard.

… your position has already probably proved to you that while the real business of conducting the affairs of our constituents is plain & easy, that of deciding by whom they shall be conducted is most painful & perplexing. it is the case of one loaf and ten men wanting bread: and we have not the gift of multiplying them.
To Joseph Bloomfield, December 5, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders are vexed by personnel issues.
Bloomfield, the new Republican governor of New Jersey, asked a favor of the President, the subject of the next post. Jefferson began his reply affirming his high regard for anything Bloomfield would send his way. Then he had a little “shop talk” with his fellow office-holder.

Bloomfield’s letter was about someone seeking a government job. Jefferson commiserated with his fellow office-holder with two observations they both knew:
1. WHAT should be done to aid their constituents was “plain & easy.”
2. Choosing WHO should do that work was “most painful & perplexing.”

Jefferson likened it to having 10 hungry men and only enough food for one. Drawing on a Biblical parallel, he admitted he lacked the miraculous means to turn one person’s food into a feast for 10.

Jefferson always found that deciding the personnel issues of governing was far more stressing than the problems to be solved.

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Weak leaders avoid the tough calls.

I have known mr Page from the time we were boys & classmates together, & love him as a brother. but I have always known him the worst judge of man existing. he has fallen a sacrifice to the ease with which he gives his confidence to those who deserve it not.
To Albert Gallatin, August 28, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders can’t avoid tough choices just to please people.
Jefferson sought opinions from three men about the qualifications of a certain individual for an appointment to a federal office. One of those three was fellow Virginian John Page (1743-1808), his oldest friend. They had been close since their student days at the College of William and Mary, 40 years before.

It appears that Page had already responded with a recommendation for the man being considered even though Page had not met him. Jefferson expected the other two replies soon. He affirmed his affection for Page, but said he was a poor choice of character. Page found it easier to avoid tough calls and praise people whether they deserved it or not.

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The result was far beyond our expectations.”
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This is what I think. You decide.

have we a right to give passages generally to private individuals whenever a public vessel is passing from one place to another? … these are my hasty thoughts on the subject. be so good as to weigh & correct them, & do in it what you think right.—
To James Madison, August 22, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Confident leaders let trusted subordinates make their own decisions.
Jefferson wrote to his Secretary of State about a number of issues in this letter. One was the prickly matter of granting permission to a private individual to travel on an American ship as if he had some kind of official status.
Jefferson gave his off-the-cuff thoughts. He invited his dear friend and trusted lieutenant Madison to review them, correct where he was wrong, and make whatever decision he thought best.

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for your outstanding presentation …
Program Co-Chair, Missouri Organization for Clinical Laboratory Science
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I serve you best by saying no.

I am duly sensible of the proof of confidence you are so good as to repose in me, resulting from the wish you express that I should undertake the guardianship of yourself & sisters. but since the year 1775. I have invariably declined guardianships & exrships [executorships] even for my nearest friends because I have never been master of my own time, and that an undertaking of that kind must have been to the injury of the persons interested … I am confident I serve you in not undertaking the office.
To Charles Wyndham Grymes, May 7, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders limit the areas where they will serve.
Mr. Grimes and his two sisters were the grandchildren of the late Ariana Randolph, wife of patriot Edmund Randolph. British agents handling her estate were persuaded by correspondence in Mrs. Randolph’s files that she wanted Jefferson to be her grandchildren’s guardian and wrote him to that effect.
Jefferson replied directly to the grandson, thanking him for the honor and confidence expressed, yet he could not take the assignment. For over 25 years, he had declined guardianships and executorships, even for his best friends. As a public man, he knew his time was not his own, and he could not give that legal work the prompt attention it deserved.
Agreeing to their request would cause them loss. Declining was the best service he could render.

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County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania
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Have you given people enough time?

In the meanwhile the public opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation [approval] from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In 1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending the Penal laws of the commonwealth.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders give people enough time.
This excerpt is on the same subject used in the previous post but illustrates a different point.

In the late 1770s, Virginia had decided on hard labor on public projects as appropriate punishment for crimes that had previously been punished by death. Pennsylvania had a similar plan, and it seemed reasonable. Later evidence from that state proved otherwise, that public demeaning did not rehabilitate criminals but made them worse. Virginia was likely experiencing the same result.

Virginian’s support for hard labor in public probably had been enthusiastic. Doing away with hard labor may have faced their opposition. Giving convicts labor to perform within a prison complex, perhaps seen as not harsh enough, might have lacked public support, as well.

Virginia’s legislature would not change the law, because they lacked public support to do so. Pennsylvania’s example, however, was now proving that hard-labor-in-public did not work but labor- within-prison did.

Given 10-15 years, public opinion was changing. Leaders could now act with public support rather than opposition. Thus, Virginia’s laws were changed in 1796 to more humane treatment.

Jefferson later wrote concerning another matter, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” This example is one of waiting for public opinion to ripen in support of something new, rather than forcing it upon them before they were ready.

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How else can mentors help?

He [William Small] returned to Europe in 1762, having previously filled up the measure of his goodness to me, by procuring for me, from his most intimate friend G. Wythe, a reception as a student of law, under his direction, and introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office. With him, and at his table, Dr. Small & Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum [Latin: friends all hours], & myself, formed a partie quarree, & to the habitual conversations on these occasions I owed much instruction. Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.
Autobiography, 1821*

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise mentors bring in more mentors.
The previous post listed the qualities Jefferson attributed to his revered college professor, Dr. William Small. His instructor didn’t keep his student to himself but introduced him to others who could guide him, as well.

First among those was lawyer George Wythe, who directed Jefferson’s five-year study of the law. Wythe moved from mentor to “my most affectionate friend through life.” Next was Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, the King’s representative in colonial Virginia.

Together, Small, Wythe and Fauquier, ages 36, 44 and 56, took the 17-year-old Jefferson into their company. The impressionable teenager learned much by observing these men, listening to and participating in their conversations.

Fauquier died in 1768 at age 65, Small in 1775 at age 41. Wythe lived until age 80, believed to be poisoned by a mulatto grandnephew in 1806. The relative was charged with the crime but not convicted. Courts did not accept the testimony of blacks, the only witnesses to the crime.

*This link is to the entire autography. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
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What qualities make a good mentor?

[I] then went to Wm. and Mary college, to wit in the spring of 1760, where I continued 2. years. It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.
Autobiography, 1821*

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders-to-be need skilled mentors.
Jefferson was almost 17 when he continued his education in college at Williamsburg. He came into the orbit of Dr. William Small, the only faculty member who was not an Anglican clergyman. Because of upheaval within the school, Small became Jefferson’s only professor, teaching all of his classes.

Sixty years later, Jefferson would cite the qualities that made Small extraordinary:

  1. “Profound,” which Webster’s 7th New Collegiate defines as “intellectual depth and insight”
  2. Devoted to the “useful branches of science,” wisdom relevant to everyday life
  3. “a happy talent for communication,” an engaging and effective classroom teacher
  4. “correct and gentlemanly manners,” proper and polite
  5. “an enlarged and liberal mind,” willing to consider all the possibilities
  6. “made me his daily companion,” taking young Jefferson under his wing
  7. “from his conversation,” verbal interaction with a high purpose

I’ve begun re-reading Jefferson’s Autobiography. I may take posts from it for some time.

*This link is to the entire autobiography. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
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Is ambition essential for leadership?

Before I ventured to declare to my countrymen my determination to retire from public employment, I examined well my heart to know whether it were thoroughly cured of every principle of political ambition, whether no lurking particle remained which might leave me uneasy when reduced within the limits of mere private life. I became satisfied that every fibre of that passion was thoroughly eradicated.
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
“D
isinterested” leaders might make the best leaders.
In the previous post, also excerpted from this letter, Jefferson gave some reasons for not heeding his county’s call to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Those reasons were preceded by the one above.

Before he determined to retire from public life, he asked himself, “Is my political ambition gone? Completely gone? Can I be happy and fulfilled in the much smaller arena of private life?” His answer to those questions was “Yes.” A year later, he was still at rest with his decision.

Jefferson appears to say that ambition, in some amount at least, is essential for leaders. Examining himself and finding none, he concluded that he was justified in declining any leadership role.

Yet, Jefferson would come out of retirement twice and log 21 more years as a public leader. Did the ambition come back? I think not, and that’s what made him such an effective leader. He could lead or govern motivated by principle rather than ambition. He had become “disinterested,” a word he used to describe someone who had no personal agenda, only the best interests of the people he served.

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Washington Association of County Officials
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Would you be ruled by reason … or the rod?

A just and solid republican government maintained here, will be a standing monument & example … that a free government is of all others the most energetic … compared with those of the leaders on the other side [of the ocean], who have discountenanced all advances in science as dangerous innovations, have endeavored to render philosophy and republicanism terms of reproach, to persuade us that man cannot be governed but by the rod, &c.
To John Dickinson, March 6, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Republican leaders govern by restraint, not by the rod.
Two days into his Presidency, Jefferson contrasted the nation’s new government, turned from Federalist to republican, to those of European nations. Hallmarks of republicanism were a self-governed, free and equal people.

His use of the word “energetic” could be interpreted two ways:
– A government “operating with vigor or effect,” Websters 7th New Collegiate, because it understood and stayed within its limited Constitutional role
– Describing a citizenry unburdened by a meddlesome government.
Regardless, it did not mean as activist national government.

What characterized European governments?
– They rejected “all advances in science as dangerous innovations.”
– They discredited the notion of equality for all.
– Man could only be governed by force, rather than reason.

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