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Happy Birthday, Mr. Madison: 3 Leadership Lessons to Rock Your World

March 16, 1751: Eleanor (Nelly) Rose Conway presents her husband James Madison with the first of 12 children. They name him James Madison, Jr. He will grow up as the scion of a well-off Virginia planter, in a life of ease and privilege made possible by enslaved people’s labor. He is expected to be prominent in local affairs by birthright and eventually take over his father’s estates to pass on to his own son.

Jemmy, as he was known to friends and enemies, confounded these expectations. Instead, he became a revolutionary, committed treason twice in the eyes of his enemies, became the fourth president of the new republic, was the only sitting president to go into battle personally, engineered the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and co-founded one of the first U.S. political parties.

What can we learn from this person of small physical stature and towering intellectual stature?

KNOW IT: Madison was brilliant. He attended a secondary school where he studied under a proponent of the Scottish Enlightenment. He attributed this early training in critical thinking, the classics, and philosophy as the basis for all he achieved. He went on to the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he studied under the president, The Reverend John Witherspoon, another noted contributor of the Scottish Enlightenment. After graduation he stayed on to study Hebrew and political philosophy. At every turn throughout his life, James Madison read and studied everything he could find on matters at hand. He made himself an expert and synthesized the information to apply it in new ways to new situations.

If you are serious about developing your leadership potential, follow Madison’s lead.

  • Do not play into the anti-intellectual bias of popular culture.

  • Read, study, and think deeply.

  • Learn from the greatest minds of the present and past.

  • Made decisions and create innovative solutions through critical thinking based on a solid foundation of facts and knowledge..

STOW IT: In his delightful book, Madison’s Gift, David Stewart chronicles Madison’s ability to partner with major leaders of the revolutionary generation to produce spectacular results. He had that rare ability to keep his own ego out of the room and team up with the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. His goal was to make things happen.

Madison’s association with Washington began as a mentorship. Yet he was a primary influence to secure his mentor’s attendance at the Constitutional Convention to provide the gravitas, leadership, and political cover to assure the endeavor was successful. During Washington’s first term as President, Madison shepherded his legislative agenda through Congress.

His unassuming, somber style contrasted with the posturing, flamboyant Alexander Hamilton. But together, they conspired to engineer the Constitutional Convention and then worked tirelessly to promote ratification. They churned out the authoritative Federalist Papers over several intense months under the joint name of Publius. (John Jay also contributed but had to withdraw due to illness.)

Thomas Jefferson was his soul mate and comrade through many endeavors. Jefferson was often the public face of things while Madison worked behind the scenes. Jefferson could live in the clouds. Madison tethered him to earth and figured out practical solutions to implement their ideas. They founded the Republican – later Democratic Republican – later Democratic – Party to oppose the Federalists Party founded by Hamilton.

As a leader,

  • you must learn to keep your ego out of the fray when working with other equally talented people.

  • For Madison, as it should be for us, the point was to be successful in building something new and important in partnership with others.

  • Grabbing the headlines and credit divert us from the essence of the task. Madison never confused his ego with the goal.

OWN IT: In my book, Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers, I coined the phrase the "Madison Factor" to describe the phenomenon of the person who gets the job done no matter what. Throughout his life, James Madison was the person who made things happen. Perhaps the most important examples surround the Constitution and First Congress.

Madison, Hamilton, and others engineered the calling of the Constitutional Convention. But it was Madison who prepared himself for months, building on his life-long study of republican principles of government and constitutions. He read everything available. Then he drafted the outline, presented by the Virginia delegation as its plan, which became the agenda for the four months of debate.

Although all his ideas were not implemented, Madison’s handiwork is everywhere. He served on committees, spoke in every debate, worked the back channels, socialized, and kept the most detailed record of the proceedings so future generations could understand how a republican constitution is created. He went up against the legendary Patrick Henry in the Virginia Ratifying Convention and countered histrionics with a calm, thoughtful, and powerful argument for the facts and logic to win the vote.

He combined a mountain of suggested amendments to the new Constitution into a short list and acted as whip to get 10 amendments passed by the first Congress to become Bill of Rights. He even worked his political skills to pass Hamilton’s proposal for the assumption of Revolutionary War debt and a financial and banking system he did not agree with. He was a life-long politician, who served in legislatures, Congress, and as Secretary of State and President.

As a leader,

  • you must either play the Madison Factor role or recruit someone who can work with you to make sure vision turns into reality.

  • Be a visionary leader who can execute. Be a leader who executes with vision.

  • Inspire your teams because you say what you will do and do what you say. Have the courage to take on formidable opposition and challenges.

Madison was far from perfect and had several colossal leadership failures to his credit. Because he is a flawed human, like us, we can learn from him. Before the British burned the White House in the War of 1812, they helped themselves to a hot dinner and cooling wine laid out for the evening meal. They joked and toasted the health of “little Jemmy.” Earlier, President Madison had strapped on a saber and a side arm and galloped out to face the approaching British. Commanders in the field convinced him to leave but he was ready to defend his country in battle. So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Madison and enjoy the last laugh as your leadership is one of the enduring treasures of that remarkable generations of leaders.

Want to know more about leadership, translating vision into reality or improving your results as a leader? Check out our Success Store Conventional Wisdom: How Todays Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers contains case studies of 21 exceptional leaders. Chapters 6, Execution is Harder than Revolution, contains examples of the Madison Factor as implemented by modern leaders.


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