Leadership Lessons From the Life of Thomas Jefferson

Leadership Lessons From the Life of Thomas Jefferson

13.4 min read

Greg L. Thomas

One Leader’s Perspective

The greatest complement I have ever read was directed toward Thomas Jefferson. President John F. Kennedy was speaking at a White House dinner given to honor Nobel Prize winners throughout the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy looked out over the distinguished guests and stated that they were “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Thomas Jefferson was an original American patriot. His personal views on individual freedom and religious liberty has greatly inspired many political leaders around the world for over 200 years. We typically think of Jefferson as a man who achieved many outstanding accomplishments in his lifetime. Indeed, he is known as the 3rd President of the United States and author of the American Declaration of Independence. Less known are his other lifetime achievements, including Virginia State Governor, American Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, architect, inventor, philosopher and founder of the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson demonstrated a lifetime of vast achievement and leadership, yet few know his life was also filled with great personal challenges. All of us face obstacles and difficulties on almost a daily basis. But very few people realize the adversity Jefferson faced during the prime of his life. Yet, some of his most significant personal and public achievements were accomplished during these times of great personal sorrow! In briefly examining his life we can better appreciate his leadership qualities. His personal endurance can provide a few valuable lessons for us today.

As is true of all great leaders, Jefferson was not a perfect man. Like all human beings, he had a number of individual flaws and weaknesses. Recent DNA testing has established the strong possibility that he may have secretly fathered children through a slave named Sally Hemings. However, one cannot read about his life without appreciating how much he shaped the civil freedoms and religious liberties we cherish in our modern western world. Throughout history men of great governmental leadership have been rare. Jefferson was not born to lead. Most who met him described him as shy and one who attempted to avoid a prominent role. He often remarked how his only desire was to be left alone to farm at his beloved home called Monticello. However, historical destiny would provide other opportunities for him. As we will see, he developed leadership by first experiencing and learning followership. Before he became an effective leader, he first became a practical follower!

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743. He was the son of a Welsh farmer who owned a large plantation in the British American colony of Virginia. Thomas was blessed to receive a good education and strong moral teachings from loving parents. From his father and his rural surroundings he acquired a lasting interest in the sciences and in education. He also developed a love for Greek and Latin at a young age. As a young adult, he attended the College of William and Mary in the early 1760’s. Jefferson eventually received his law degree in 1767. After he began his law practice, an interest in politics led him to be selected as a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses was a colonial legislative assembly under the authority of the British appointed governor. Three years later, at age 29, he married a wealthy widow named Martha Wayles Skelton.

Jefferson was a reserved person by nature and spoke in a very soft voice. He was never considered eloquent in speech and gave few public speeches in his career. By today’s definition we would not say he had charismatic leadership. But those who spent time with him found his conversations and personality engaging. One of his earliest recognized talents was skillful writing and prose. In his lifetime, Jefferson wrote over 18,000 letters. This talent would serve him well throughout his lifetime. By the 1770’s the American colonies felt unfairly dominated by Great Britain. Delegates from these colonies assembled as a Congress to discuss their grievances and future relationship with Great Britain and its king. Jefferson was chosen to represent Virginia at the 2nd Continental Congress in 1775. By the time of the 2nd Continental Congress, his previously published writings on the “rights of people from tyranny” had already caught the attention of many other delegates to the Congress.

At the young age of 33 years old Jefferson was asked to be the junior member of a committee whose task it was to draft the American Declaration of Independence. He served with two notable individuals whose senior status and outspoken manner made them prominent leaders in the Congress. They were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Being a junior member of the committee, Jefferson resisted writing the draft and suggested that Adams create it. Reputedly it was John Adams who convinced the younger Jefferson to construct the document. He told Jefferson there were three reasons why he should write the document. Reason one was that Jefferson was a Virginian and Adams thought a representative from a southern colony like Virginia should “appear at the head of this business.” Reason two, Adams continued is that “I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much other wise.” Reason three Adams opined is “You can write ten times better than I can.”

Jefferson completed his draft in late June of 1776. He was about to learn a valuable lesson in followership. Being a talented young man and gifted in writing, he was naturally proud of his draft document. First his original draft was amended when both Adams and Franklin made alterations with their own handwriting on Jefferson’s draft. The committee presented it to Congress on June 28th of 1776. The debate on the Declaration began on July 1st and lasted three days. Jefferson sat and watched the Congress considerably alter his document as presented by the committee. The Congress cut about a quarter of the text, polished some of the wording, and made some substantive changes. Jefferson later wrote how painful and humbling it was to experience this debate. He felt his original document was “mangled” by the Congress. This was a powerful lesson in followership for Jefferson. Oftentimes the best efforts of followers may not be what are most needed or expedient for a given situation. Wise followers accept this fact and continue to make significant contributions to the organization because they want what is best for the organization rather than their own ego! Through this painful experience Jefferson learned about the difficulty of working with other powerful or dogmatic personalities. He learned about the value of building consensus and accepting rejection. Today Jefferson is rightly credited as the author of the Declaration of Independence, yet few people comprehend how he learned to be a follower within the Congress.

The American Colonies revolted and went to war. Jefferson was a legislator and Governor of the state of Virginia. In 1782, Jefferson became a member of the newly formed Congress of the United States, and in 1784 he was named the American ambassador to France. This decade of his life was one of tremendous accomplishment. As a legislator he had instituted many social reforms to protect individual rights and the use of private property. As a member of Congress he played a pivotal role in the establishment of a new nation. He was influential in guaranteeing that no one church would become the official state religion of the United States or receive state financing. He risked his personal life and wealth for the principles he believed in. His leadership accomplishments are impressive. However, they are all the more astounding when we realize what else was going on in his life!

This same decade of his life would also bring about a number of personal tragedies. In 1773 his father-in-law died. Shortly afterward his best childhood friend died suddenly leaving a wife and six children. The next year his first daughter Jane was born, but she would die 18 months later when Jefferson was 31 years old. In 1776, his mother died unexpectedly at age 57. One year later Jefferson’s first son was born and died within a few hours of birth. In 1781 a series of personal trials occurred. First, the British army invaded Virginia and captured his beloved Monticello. Jefferson barely escaped capture by the army. He broke his left wrist while being thrown from a horse. Also during this year, his reputation was damaged when his political enemies convinced the Virginia State Assembly to investigate his conduct as governor of Virginia. The very next year, his wife Martha died just a few months after giving birth to their daughter Lucy Elizabeth. On her deathbed she made him promise never to marry again. Jefferson was now only 39 years old and he kept his promise to Martha. Though he would live another 43 years, he never did marry again.

Most of us would certainly agree that Thomas Jefferson experienced many distressing personal trials during this 10-12 year period. But, sad to say, that was not all! At age 41, he witnessed the death of his daughter Lucy Elizabeth, who died of “whooping cough”. One year later, he stumbled while walking and broke his right wrist. It was not set properly and he suffered pain in this wrist for the rest of his life. During various times of his life he also suffered from prolonged migraine headaches that almost incapacitated him. Another worry he experienced was mounting debt problems for allowing his farm to deteriorate while he served his country in various roles. Remember, all these events were happening while Jefferson was involved in the leadership of founding and managing a fragile new nation. History has recorded all of his many achievements during theses very years when these personal trials were occurring in his life. Few understand what was going on in his private life. He suffered more distressing personal trials than many of us have. However, Jefferson is not remembered for his trials, but for his accomplishments as a powerful and effective leader.

Jefferson had a great leadership quality that set him apart from many others. He did not allow the difficult circumstances of life to crush his inner spirit or his desire to serve others who called upon him for help. Yes, like all of us he could become very discouraged. Upon the death of his wife he remarked to others that he even wanted to end his life. He certainly hurt, mourned, and experienced depression and sadness like most of us. Yet he was able to reach deep inside, shake off these natural emotions and go forward. Jefferson was a lot like another great political figure that arose in the 20th century. Winston Churchill shared this same quality with Jefferson. It is Churchill who roared…”Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Thomas Jefferson was able to endure great personal hardship in life because he was a man of purpose. He viewed life as an opportunity to explore the universe and gain knowledge about the wonderful world around him.  He wrote the following statement in 1786 that revealed his zest for life even with all of its trials and obstacles. “Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures…Ever in our power, always leading us to something new, never cloying, we ride, serene and sublime, above the concerns of this mortal world, contemplating truth and nature, matter and motion, the laws which bind up their existence, and the Eternal being who made and bound them up by these laws. Let this be our employ.” It is obvious from his many writings and he had an enthusiasm for life, knowledge and exploration. Another positive leadership quality he possessed was an interest in manydiverse subjects and ideas. He was not obsessed with a single narrow interest, but had many individual interests. Those who met him were astounded at his interest and knowledge in all the sciences and humanities. Some of his numerous hobbies included gardening and practical household inventions. These hobbies helped to refresh his mind and add spice to his life. What a contrast to many leaders today who are so narrow minded or heavily focused on a single issue they leave their followers remarking that they “need a life”!

A reason Jefferson may have been able to overcome personal tragedy and hardship was his rather unique religious beliefs. He was not an eager supporter of the organized religion of his day. Yet it was Jefferson who refers to God three times in the American Declaration of Independence. Some have labeled him a “deist” and some of his political enemies even claimed he was irreligious. The truth is that Jefferson was a deeply religious man in a nontraditional way. He was a firm believer in religious freedom and rejected the traditional views and doctrines of most churches that existed during his time. Feeling that some had distorted the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Jefferson assembled only the words of Christ out of the four gospels and created a book now known as theJefferson Bible. This was the book he took to bed with him to end his day. In a letter he wrote to John Adams, he stated that he read this book for “an hour or a half’s…reading of something moral whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.” Jefferson is not alone among great leaders who drew upon their religious principles or values during times of turmoil and instability.

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His final letters to fellow patriot John Adams and many other friends reveal a man who had mellowed and changed through a lifetime of experiences and personal suffering. Even his final years offer us a valuable lesson in leadership. Near the end of his life Jefferson renewed his friendship with the elder John Adams. For many years they had not been friends. After the revolution and founding of the United States both had become bitter political adversaries. On many issues they were on opposite ends. They grew apart and for many years never communicated directly. However, both leaders deeply understood an important leadership principle. Don’t make political or organizational differences personal! People are more important than programs. Friendship should transcend policy. Both men made an effort to renew their past association and truly became friends. In their later years it gave these two sages an opportunity to discuss their views and differences on political theory and philosophy in a 15 year long letter writing campaign.

Examining the life of Jefferson is a study of the qualities of great leadership. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the purchase of Louisiana territory, he was willing to undertake personal risk and responsibility. In accepting the many poorly paid political offices he served, Jefferson sacrificed many years of productive farming and his wealth. He envisioned America as potentially greater than it was and did what he could to make the promise of America a reality. He dedicated his entire adult life to the pursuit of reason that government should serve its citizens and not be their master.

Thank you Mr. Jefferson!

Comments to: gthomas@32john.com

About the author:

 Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager.  He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. In August of 2000, Greg completed his studies for a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University. He is the founder of weLEAD Incorporated.


Brodie, Fawn, (1974) Thomas Jefferson – An Intimate History. New York: Bantam Books

Cunningham, Noble, (1987) In Pursuit of Reason – The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge, Louisiana:

Louisiana State University Press

Ellis, Joseph, (1997) American Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knoft  (Random House)



  • Quote of the Day

    “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

    — Sam Walton