Alexander Hamilton: The Trials & Tribulations of Leadership
Prepared by: Renée Daugherty
Extension Specialist – Leadership and Educational Methods
Stillwater, OK 74078
Winder, John A. (Spring 2005). Book review: Alexander Hamilton: The trials and tribulations of leadership. The Leadership Journey, 2-5.
[A review of the following book: Chernow, Ron. (2004). Alexander Hamilton: The Trials and Tribulations of Leadership. New York: Penguin Books.]
IMPLICATIONS FOR COOPERATIVE EXTENSION. By studying a complex historical figure like Hamilton, we find numerous analogies to things that leaders wrestle with every day. The following will examine five major characteristics of leaders that were demonstrated (positively or negatively) by Hamilton and others. It will also analyze how these characteristics impacted Hamilton's abilities as a leader. Finally, it will describe how we can gain insight from history in our own leadership journeys.
In his review of the book, Winder notes that Hamilton’s biography shows a microcosm of leadership that demonstrates glorious successes and incredible mistakes. The biography also illustrates how damaging pride can be to even the most capable leaders.
Hamilton grew up impoverished and fatherless on the British West Indies. His extraordinary intellect was recognized at a fairly young age. This along with a series of lucky breaks facilitated his immigration to New York shortly before the Revolutionary War. There he vigorously pursued formal education at Kings College. During this time, he also became involved in politics developing his considerable talents as an orator and political theorist. After the outbreak of war, General George Washington recognized his talents and made him his chief aide. Amazingly, Hamilton also found time during the war to become a student of economics and finance and literally created a
blue print for a national banking and finance system.
After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton worked tirelessly to build the framework for a constitution to replace the failed Articles of Confederation. After the Constitution, he created one of his most enduring legacies, the Federalist Papers. These documents were largely responsible for selling the Constitution to the public, leading to its eventual ratification (by the slimmest of margins) and adoption.
His extensive writings, along with collaborative efforts of Madison and others, not only explained the meaning of the document but also provided insights into the intent of the founding fathers that still resonates today. Without Hamilton's passion, it is very likely that this experiment in governance would have been stillborn.
Washington later appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. In this capacity, he established a national bank, a tax collection system, the Coast Guard, a public credit system, a bond market, and many other institutions that remain to this day. He recognized the potential for this new country to become a major industrial power at a time when society was largely agrarian, and he created much of the infrastructure necessary for the birth of an industrialized nation.
Hamilton was a proponent of a strong centralized government and became the stalwart of the new Federalist Party. His passion for a
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highly centralized government put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and others who formed the Republican Party and who envisioned a new agrarian society with a weak central government and largely independent states. This rift between Federalists and Republicans defined both Hamilton's career and much of the early history of the United States. It also set the stage for an interesting study of leadership within the context of the fledgling democracy.
Hamilton was not only an intellectual and a visionary, but a man of intense passion. When properly focused, this passion propelled him to considerable accomplishment, but in other instances, it led to decisions that plagued his short life and eventually resulted in his untimely death.
Five Major Characteristics of Leadership
1. Creativity is paramount for a successful organization.
During the Revolutionary War and the subsequent development of the Constitution, creative minds left indelible impacts on our society. Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence), James Madison (principle author of the Constitution), Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton are partly responsible for the development of principles that helped define this nation at a time when there were no templates for the creation of a 'modern' democracy.
Insights for Extension. An organization without ideas cannot move forward. Ideas are the stuff that makes us both what we are and what we will be. In any organization, it is an absolute necessity to have a core group of creative thinkers. Leaders must learn how to harness and direct creativity. This can be an incredible challenge. Creative persons are often referred to as "high maintenance" people because they are usually not only creative but they also possess tremendous passion for their ideas and ideals. One of the major challenges of Washington's first administration was dealing with the constant quarrels between two of the great intellects of the day – Hamilton and Jefferson.
2. Humility is an important characteristic among leaders.
Hamilton's Achilles' heel was his pride, never acknowledging his own fallibility.
Compromise was extremely difficult for him to accept. In the early years, Washington was able to check Hamilton's pride and helped him avoid some tactical mistakes. Without Washington's mentoring, Hamilton repeatedly let his pride, and in some cases his arrogance, paint him into dangerous corners. Ultimately his pride led to his death in a duel at the hands of the equally prideful Aaron Burr.
Insights for Extension. Pride and vanity are not prerequisites for leadership. Even the most brilliant leaders can benefit from the view of others. We all find ourselves in situations where we take ownership of ideas, but we must accept the fact that ideas created without critical review are often flawed. If our pride will not permit us to accept modification, we are on a slippery slope.
3. Perseverance and patience are critical.
After resigning as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was given a commission and became the de facto commander of the army. He recognized the need for well trained officers and drew up detailed plans for a military academy at West Point. But there was strong sentiment against the creation of a large standing army at the time. People were also suspicious of Hamilton's motives in pressing for a strong defensive force instead of relying on an alliance of state militias. As a result, this great idea was not realized during Hamilton's tenure. Interestingly, it was Hamilton's greatest adversary, Thomas Jefferson, who eventually saw the merit in the plan and constructed the academy during his presidency.
Insights for Extension. Though it is important to exhibit humility, it is also important not to give up on a good idea. Often great ideas are overlooked simply because timing was wrong.
4. The Impact of Anger on Logic
There were times during Hamilton's career when anger generated by political battles led to questionable decision-making. When angered, he tended to make some of his poorest decisions. For example, he supported the Alien and Sedition Acts which greatly curtailed individual liberties and resulted in imprisonment of individuals that spoke out against persons of authority. In another instance, Hamilton's inability to resolve a conflict with fellow Federalist John Adams
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during Adams' term as president resulted in Hamilton supporting another presidential candidate. This split the Federalist vote and ultimately resulted in the election of the Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton's behind the scenes efforts had in effect mortally wounded his Federalist Party.
Insights for Extension. Anger and vindictive behavior are very destructive. Leaders should never respond out of anger because their actions are likely to be flawed, if not entirely wrong. Unfortunately, this is a far too common occurrence among persons in leadership roles. Leaders need to possess cool heads in a tempest. Angry outbursts and actions rarely lead to a desirable end.
5. Ethics are important.
Misbehavior among politicians is nothing new in this country. It was actually very common among the founding fathers. Hamilton had an affair with a married woman. The woman's husband later blackmailed Hamilton. Eventually Hamilton's indiscretions were made public, and he was forced to acknowledge his activities. This was used by his political enemies repeatedly until his death.
Insights for Extension. Leaders are often susceptible to the belief that power gives them the right to misbehave. In truth, persons in leadership roles are constantly under the scrutiny of others. Leaders set the ethical standard for the organization. Far too often we see otherwise great people become victims of their own indiscretions. We must be aware of our actions in both our professional and personal lives.
amilton’s life is a wonderful study of both the potential and the fallibility of the human spirit. Though his greatness has been recognized by historians, one cannot help but wonder how much more he could have accomplished if he could have controlled his pride and temper and if he had behaved ethically. Hamilton was still a relatively young man in the years before his death, but his loss of political influence and to some extent his credibility occurred long before his life was extinguished on the dueling grounds of New Jersey. He found himself unable to influence others to the extent he
previously could. His Federalist party lost power after the Adams administration and a string of Republican administrations followed. Hamilton has been called the most influential person who never became president; but in the end, he fell victim to his own character flaws.
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