A few weeks ago, I joined the chaotic and energized crowd of Hamilton fans and got a seat to the hottest ticket on Broadway. Needless to say, the show was phenomenal! The music was exhilarating, the story both heart-wrenching and heart-warming, there is a hip-hop number with dancing colonial soldiers and (I did not know this before), the Founding Fathers apparently can rap – there really isn’t much more you can ask for from a Broadway show.
For those of us a little unclear on our early American history, here is the basic plot summary: Alexander Hamilton was an ambitious orphaned immigrant from the West Indies, who quickly rose up to become George Washington’s right-hand man. An incredible writer and scholar, Hamilton made unprecedented American history, oftentimes at the opposition of fellow founders James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as well as politician Aaron Burr, who later served as vice president under Jefferson. Oh, and as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton is still on the $10 bill.
Links to Leadership
After a powerful experience such as Hamilton, I find that it is oftentimes good to take some time and reflect on what I might learn from it. So, after I gave myself a few hours to let my mind purge itself of song lyrics, I began to think about the many examples of leadership that seemed to be present in the show. I began to reflect on: Has the show helped to transform my thinking about leadership? Could it have an impact on how I and others might view leadership, and how we lead? The short answer is yes. Hamilton is filled with examples of leadership.
The Passion of Hamilton
The show clearly illustrates throughout, the kind of qualities in leaders that allow others to follow, vs. those qualities that cause others to turn away. The most powerful leadership dichotomy existed between the two leads: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Although Hamilton is the title character, around whom the story revolves, Hamilton was not very well-liked or respected by many, and he was not always the greatest example of a good leader. In fact, Aaron Burr, for example, advised Mr. Hamilton from the very beginning, which he reiterated to Hamilton many times, “talk less, smile more.” Hamilton’s running mouth and passionate attitude turned a lot of folks off. To them, he seemed like a know-it-all who seemed to know better than everyone else, quickly dismissing others’ opinions if they did not align with his own.
It is a wonderful thing to be passionate, and to fight for what you believe in, but so too is pausing to listen to others. An effective leader actively and openly listens to the opinions, ideas, and suggestions of others (Relationship Leadership). Automatically placing your opinion above that of others’, and not seeking out and respecting differing points of view, will only serve to increase negativity and decrease engagement from those you are attempting to lead. That being said, Hamilton was nonetheless, very driven, and worked hard to achieve his goals, even when all the cards were stacked against him (Results Leadership). He was confident in his vision, and he made it clear that anybody can “rise up” and take action for what they deem important (Visionary Leadership). In other words, you knew where Hamilton stood on things.
The Indecisiveness of Burr
Aaron Burr, on the other hand, was the polar opposite to Hamilton. This politician did not talk enough. In the show, his plot line centered around the themes of indecisiveness and stagnation. The other characters in the show often chanted, “if you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?” (Centered Leadership, or the lack thereof). Unlike Hamilton, Burr often took no action on important matters. No one knew what his ideals were, what he represented, what he believed in, or what he stood for.
Leadership and Trust
It is difficult to trust, much less follow and support a leader who does not know what that individual stands for. How can you make consistent, informed decisions if you do not have a platform? In institutional terms, this concept is referred to as the organization’s mission, vision, values, and goals. In the show, Hamilton was willing to back his lifelong political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, in the presidential race against Burr, as Burr never had a consistent stance, so no one knew what he truly stood for. Organizational leaders can suffer from this same malady.
By the way, nowhere is this discussion of leadership vision and values better exemplified right now than in our very own upcoming presidential race this November. As voters, it is critical for each of us to fully understand: 1) what it is that we really and truly value, and 2) what kind of leader would best represent those values, help to fight for them, and that will behave and make decisions that are consistent with those values? Whether it is a candidate running for president, or a leader within your organization, if that leader does not have a clear platform, that is, a clearly articulated vision and set of values, how can you put your trust in that individual to make sound decisions, and to follow through on their vision and promises? Trust is an essential part of leadership.
Other Examples of Leadership
While the characters of Hamilton and Burr are the two main examples of leadership in the show, there are also many other examples sprinkled throughout. George Washington, of course, our nation’s first (presidential) leader, is highly praised as a leader, fighting bravely, for example, side-by-side with his soldiers in the Battle of Yorktown. He also exhibited a strong sense of unity with his fellow politicians and revolutionaries – something that people valued him greatly for.
And in yet another leadership example, the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, poked fun at secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, pointing out that Jefferson was off in France for the entire revolution and came back with a cabinet seat waiting comfortably for him. For some, Jefferson seemed almost a foreign leader. And speaking of foreign leaders, King George III of England was portrayed as a ridiculous, whiny “child” who pouted when he didn’t get what he wanted (the colonies). Granted, the musical Hamilton is a dramatization, yet it is still interesting to watch how these various leaders reacted when things did not go as planned.
In summary, it is important to listen (Relate), to have a platform and stick to it (Vision), to not put yourself on a higher pedestal than others, that is, the qualities of a servant leader – something that Washington was known for at times (Centered), and to be proactive (Results). As Hamilton urged: We are all our own leaders. What this means is that we all have control over ourselves to be ambitious, to work hard, and to not “throw away [any] shot” that we have for ourselves. Hamilton is the perfect example of an individual who maximized his human potential, and it is an example we should all try and follow – to make every shot count.
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Huge thanks to Mary Pumper for attending Hamilton with me as well as co-authoring this article.