The Leadership Qualities of Thomas Jefferson

One of my occasional projects is to read presidential biographies. I am reading them because each of them had the leadership qualities to get elected to perhaps the highest office in the Western world, so by definition there is something in their lives that is worth studying.

I have just finished “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham. Jefferson was a man who lived for the chance to increase his knowledge about anything and everything. He could engage virtually anyone in conversation because he could find a genuine interest in something that the other person was interested in. In his political leadership he was able to blend two opposing qualities that made him enormously successful. As president, he wanted to know everything that was going on in his cabinet so he could shape events according to his will. He wanted control. At the same time, he would do almost anything to avoid a direct confrontation. He understood that the way to maintain cordial relationships is to avoid arguments. So when he wanted to push some piece of legislation or introduce some controversial idea, he would often ask another person to do it for him, while keeping his involvement a secret. In this, there was an element of humility – he didn’t care whether he got credit for his ideas (on one case, he asked that the recipient burn the letter in which he suggested that the recipient introduce the legislation – we only know about this because the recipient didn’t burn it!). Jefferson blended control with humility. Although at one point he and John Adams were on opposing sides of a fierce struggle for the future of the emerging country (Federalist vs. Republican), at the end of their careers the two of them were on very good terms.

Jefferson also understood that theoretical idealism does not work in the real world of politics. He was elected as a States’ Rights Republican anti-Federalist (whom he called Monarchists), but over the course of his eight years he saw the wisdom of a strong president and a strong Federal government. For example, the Louisiana Purchase would not have been possible had he waited for a Constitutional Amendment (which he theoretically believes was necessary) before signing the agreement.

A synagogue should be an inclusive institution, and this means that within the boundaries of the mission statement, arguments should be avoided. People ought to be welcomed where they are, and the mission of the synagogue ought to be to encourage them to explore the depths of Judaism and increase their commitment to a Jewish life. The mission of the synagogue ought to be encouraging, not coercive. Synagogue business ought to be conducted with humility, with the awareness that control over the institution ultimately belongs to Torah, which embodies the mission of the congregation.

Next up: “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” by Lynn Cheney.

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