How to Lead Like Thomas Jefferson

Like many historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson was a man who didn’t fit into a specific mold, sometimes favoring ideas that were unpopular at the time. Jefferson was considered to be a visionary, often going against the grain in order to achieve the greater good for the country. Jefferson also was a man who forged ahead, despite personal tragedy and despair.

Although many lessons can be learned from Jefferson, understanding how his leadership skills influenced the way he is remembered today can be applied to your own modern business, academic and even social situations. Here are some suggestions on how you can lead like Thomas Jefferson.


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    Broaden your knowledge. A polymath by nature and experience, Jefferson spoke five languages, and was passionately interested in philosophy, science, religion, architecture and invention. He was well read and always had a thirst for knowledge. Devote at least one part of your week to reading books, articles, journals, newspapers and other reputable sources of information in order to keep up with developments in your own field and beyond.
    • Never assume that you are "above" digesting popular information sources as well. A leader should know the pulse of what the majority of the public is thinking and following by way of trends, fads and curiosities. Knowing what matters to the people you lead (whether it's a team or a company) will always help you to tailor your ideas and visions to make them resonate with those you're guiding. Be curious and genuine in your desire to understand what moves people.
    • Claiming "I cannot live without books", Jefferson accumulated thousands of books for his library at Monticello. You may not have the space for thousands of books in your actual home but do make use of eReaders, iPads, laptops, etc. that allow you to download eBooks. You can access the majority of the classics for free in this form, and many other great books can be purchased and stored with ease this way. Just be sure to back it all up so that you don't lose your amazing collection.
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    Speak your mind, even if your opinion isn’t popular. Looking beyond the status quo for a better way of doing things and for ways to improve society as a whole may not be popular initially––resistance to change, however beneficial, is a human certainty. During Jefferson’s times, free America was not fully realized and many Americans did not fully grasp the concept of a completely free society. However, Jefferson turned his frustration into determined persistence and talked to anyone who would listen about his vision of a free U.S. He pushed and persuaded until his dream came to fruition.
    • Stick to your principles. Don’t allow others to influence or sway you from your original intent. For example, Jefferson believed that people should be able to practice any religion they wanted and that the press should be afforded certain freedoms. Today Americans are free from persecution to practice any religion they choose. Moreover, freedom of the press has continued to keep those in public office accountable to the people.
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    Focus on your strengths. There is much said and written about overcoming your weaknesses. While there is always room for tightening up aspects of yourself that aren't working the way you want them to, it is a fool's life to pursue anything that relies principally on your weaknesses. Realize that focusing all the time on weaknesses leaves less time to focus on strengths and in many cases, can cause you to feel "less than" rather than to celebrate what you're brilliant at. If you believe you're in a position that isn’t a good fit or you aren’t qualified enough, don’t bluff or “wing it.” Jefferson was made Secretary of State by George Washington and felt at odds with the job and others in the government. He decided to walk away from working in the government, reversing this decision later when he felt ready.
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    Draw on inner strength and faith in yourself during times of personal tragedy. Personal tragedy can derail even the most steadfast of leaders. Jefferson was no stranger to devastation and misfortune, losing his wife of eleven years, Martha, and seeing only two of his six children with her reach adulthood. However, he refused to allow the tragedy in his life to unhinge his focus and determination. While he grieved strongly after the death of his wife, he realized that he needed to forge on rather than give in to despair. When challenges face you, allow yourself the time to recover but do not wallow in sadness or disappointment for long; as a leader, you have gifts to share with other people who see you as a role model, guide and mentor.
    • Hold tightly to your goals by being a man or woman of purpose. In 1786, Jefferson wrote about his enthusiasm and passion for life, despite tragedies and disappointments: “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.
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    Acknowledge your imperfections without fostering them. Even the greatest leader understands that he or she is not perfect. Although Jefferson is considered to be one of the country’s greatest leaders, his character is riddled with imperfection and inconsistency. For example, Jefferson is known to have had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered at least six of her children, an indiscretion he never denied. Moreover, many scholars find Jefferson to have been a dishonest man because he never owned certain high impact decisions he made in his life and although he proclaimed to believe in equality for all, his continued ownership of slaves was an inconsistent approach to what he preached. While Jefferson's attitude has a historical context, his documented attitude is something you can learn from so that you heed your own inconsistencies.
    • All human beings are inconsistent to a point, and yet we each need to acknowledge this rather than pretend it's not an issue. Moreover, much of what is inconsistent in us is a result of how we see ourselves at different points in time––and naturally, we change as we mature and age, usually for the better. A good leader will continue to learn and grow, will seek to be less defensive of his or her own ideas and be more open to the perspectives of others. Avoid getting stuck in time or stifling your growth as this is the surest way to stay inconsistent with both yourself and with changes around you; always be prepared to stay open-minded, especially when confronted by complex issues that require considerable thought.
    • Use your mistakes as a learning experience. If you don’t learn from your mistakes you cannot build and further your leadership. By acknowledging your errors and studying them, you can fortify your ability and credibility as a leader and avoid the same pitfalls and shortcomings in the future. Although it is widely know that Jefferson made many mistakes, future presidents turned to him for advice and lessons, well beyond his actual life.
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    Learn from others, even if it means you must follow for a while. Great leaders learn skills by not just forging ahead without knowledge but by identifying mentors or guides, studying their strategies and molding their techniques to their advantage.
    • Stay aware throughout your life that you don’t always know everything, not even in your own field of expertise. Even seasoned leaders understand that always improving your knowledge is the real source of power––and that it is impossible to know everything. For example, during the creation of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a junior member of the committee. He was charged with writing a draft, but knew that senior member John Adams had more knowledge and insight to write the draft (although Jefferson ultimately authored the document). He sought knowledge from Adams, even asking him to write it instead.
    • Gain motivation and insight from your mentors. Although Jefferson asked Adams to create the draft, it was Adams who provided Jefferson with the necessary motivation and encouragement, which led him to pen his draft. Adams pointed out Jefferson’s strengths, one being that he was a better writer. Sometimes it takes other people's observations of you to point out your strengths.


  • Be firm with your intentions. When you intend to do something or want others to know that you authentically believe something, don't hedge or prevaricate. State what you intend to do, then do it. One of the best known phrases in the English language ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") was a result of Jefferson getting straight to the point, and meaning it.
  • Surround yourself with trusted advisors. During his presidency, Jefferson appointed loyal colleagues such as James Madison to help him with decision making.
    • Embrace the written word. Jefferson was a man who had a distinct passion for books and reading. The more you read, the more knowledge you will glean.


  • Don't let your scandals hold you back or let fear of scandal stop you from doing what you set out to do in life. If you let people intimidate you about something you did in the past or a habit that wouldn't be socially acceptable, you're also shutting down all the good you can do.
  • Don't fear being wrong. Learn from everyone you encounter. They have different perspectives and opinions that are useful in both cementing and modifying your own.
  • If you find your views have not changed, there is a good chance you are simply pigheaded, not principled. Broad guiding principles are the key but how they play out in your life must be informed by verifiable facts. Know how to find facts and make this a foundation of your outlook.
  • Be cognizant of any endeavor that would be considered to be scandalous. Even in Jefferson's times when television and the Internet were non existent, news that he fathered a child with a slave was a common whisper and tarnished his reputation as a leader.

Things You'll Need

  • Books about Jefferson – historical accounts should be read first hand by you

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