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Leadership For The Long Haul: A Lesson From Thomas Jefferson

As much as I enjoy studying sports and business leadership, I love the opportunity to delve deeply into what some of history’s greatest leaders can teach. They don’t come much greater than Thomas Jefferson, and the leadership moments don’t get much stronger than his decision to take our fledgling democracy into its first battle on foreign shores!

Jefferson, who served first as George Washington’s Secretary of State, had a few issues that he had flagged as the most threatening to the security of the new nation.  On his first meeting in that role with Washington, on March 22, 1790, he brought up his most urgent concerns—among them the piracy that was occurring off the Barbary Coast of North Africa.

For centuries, raiding ships from the countries of Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, and Tripoli had been attacking European ships, stealing their goods and capturing their crews, whom they held as slaves unless the sailors could be ransomed by families or the government back home. The only defense a country had was to pay a hefty fee, called a “tribute,” to the Barbary leaders—and pray that the pirates respected the arrangement.  As a young nation rich in natural resources but with a crushing load of debt from the Revolutionary War, American ships had been especially targeted in those years due to their valuable cargo and the relatively small tribute they were able to offer.

Jefferson understood that the United States could not afford to continue to pay the ever-increasing tribute demands nor, he reasoned, should they have to; sailors, whether military or civilian, had a right to sail in international waters without fear of attack or imprisonment. The piracy needed to be stopped, not funded into perpetuity by on-going payments to despotic leaders.

President Washington was a man of action, but he was also a man of reason.  He recognized that the new nation was still reeling from the Revolution and was not at all prepared to take on another war so soon—not in terms of military might or the cost both in dollars and human lives. Washington thanked Jefferson for his advice, but felt the time was not right to enact Jefferson’s plan for military action.

Jefferson pushed back, but Washington held firm and Jefferson eventually stepped down as Secretary after just three years.  When John Adams became president in 1796, Jefferson again raised his concerns. It was not until Jefferson became the third president of the United States in 1801 that he was finally in a position to do something about the Barbary Pirates. But he had not wasted his time while he waited.

Rather than dwelling on the fact that he could not persuade those in power to his perspective, Jefferson had instead dedicated himself to becoming a student of the Barbary States.  He had bought a copy of the Koran to read it to learn as much as he could, trying to understand the people, customs, and religious beliefs that were driving the attacks. He sought out advice from men who had been held captive in the region and others who had knowledge of the area.  He considered carefully what ships would be necessary to equip a navy to take on the fight. And when he did finally become president but found Congress was slow to see his point of view, he moved deliberately and carefully to do everything he could within the legal limits of his office by implementing his plan in stages.

In short, Jefferson exhibited leadership over decades, even if he was not the person ultimately in charge.  He voiced his concerns and his ideas; he argued and advocated for what he believed was the best policy; he researched, sought out advice, and prepared for the day when he would be in a place to make the call. And, when that day finally came, he was ready to act judiciously.

Jefferson’s example offers an important lesson in long-term leadership for all of us. Even though the process was a frustrating one—and would continue to be so for several years even after he sent the first fleet of American ships to the Mediterranean in a show of force—Jefferson did not give up when his suggestions were rejected the first, second, or tenth time.  Instead, he strengthened his position through personal investment in learning. But what was more, by implementing his plan in stages and allowing Congress and the American people to come alongside him and see the reasoning behind the action, he ultimately won more sympathy and support than if he had simply ram-rodded his agenda through.

The result was, ultimately, a victory both in terms of proving American military strength as well establishing foreign policy as a nation that would not tolerate its citizens to be victims of foreign terrorists. It was leadership that produced a legacy.

To learn more about Jefferson’s leadership, check out “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates,” which I co-authored with Brian Kilmeade, released this week by Penguin.


This article was written by Don Yaeger from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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