Hamilton and Leadership

Hamilton and Leadership

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I was determined to see the musical Hamilton. In fact, I was so determined that my husband and I drove through pouring rain, poor visibility, and traffic delays from my hometown of Cincinnati to Detroit. It was worth it!

I was amazed and in love with the performance. And afterward, my mind kept going back to the music and how some of the songs related to leadership. The final song, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, is one that really intrigued me—especially the last part of the title because it is so important, as a leader, to be aware of both who is telling your story and what story are they telling.

One example of how this played out in Hamilton’s life comes from looking at the actions of his wife, Eliza. Completely devoted to her husband and family, she then discovered that Hamilton was having an affair. She could have forgiven him or simply walked away. Instead, she chose to burn all the letters he had written her in order to prevent anyone from knowing her pain. Contrary to how others saw Alexander Hamilton and the stories they would tell of him, Eliza had a very different perspective based on how he behaved toward her. Hamilton’s act of infidelity had violated her trust. Thinking only of himself and not of his wife and family, he lost credibility. And as a consequence, Eliza essentially wrote herself out of Hamilton’s narrative, ensuring that his story would be told without her.

All of this got me thinking. Are there people writing themselves out of your narrative as a leader because of how you treat them? Does your behavior aid others in telling a positive leadership story about you? Is your team becoming disengaged because of your behavior? Or does your behavior stoke the fire of passion and engagement with your team? As leaders we have to stop and consider how our actions and behaviors impact other people. We can only achieve our goals and vision by including others and, of course, others won’t join in if we are not leading from a place of authenticity.

Hamilton’s son offers another example of someone telling a different story—different from his mother’s, different from the play’s narrative depicting what the public may have seen. Idolizing his father and wanting to protect his reputation at all costs (even dying in a duel defending his honor), Hamilton’s son would have painted a picture of a father who was a prominent politician, a prolific writer, and a man of great character. Through the eyes of the son, we see Hamilton in a different light, as Hamilton cherished his son and treated him accordingly. Now to be sure, I am not suggesting that someone defend your honor to the death. But, are you the kind of leader that people want to defend, who find your character admirable and honorable? Will people stand up for you when you are not around? Do they believe in you enough to take a stand for you?

The other song from Hamilton that continues to resonate with me as I think about leadership is Say No to This. The lyrics tell the story of Hamilton’s temptation toward infidelity, and his desire for help in saying no. He knows right from wrong. However, he feels pulled in the wrong direction—much like when we, as leaders, are tempted to move the needle on where we stand on our values…just a hair. We may be tempted to not take a stand and allow silence to prevail or to act in ways that are not authentic to whom we are.

In the end, Hamilton (the play and the character) have much to teach us about leadership. For example, the next time you are tempted to veer away from your values, think about Hamilton’s words when he sings, “No, show me how to say no to this”. Find a friend or colleague to discuss your dilemma. They may be able to help you say NO when you need to.

Remember, too, that there are always consequences from decisions we make that erode our values or principals. Hamilton did not say no when he should have, and his wife and family bore the burden of his decisions. Who bears the burden when you make inappropriate decisions? Rarely is it just you who is affected. Companies have folded and lives have been devastated all because someone didn’t say no.

As authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner have drilled into our heads, ”credibility is the foundation of leadership”, and when that foundation starts to crack it is not easily repaired. Like caulking a crack in a wall, eventually, even when the crack is covered, it pulls apart again. It can take a long time to restore credibility. So, be very sure and very clear about the consequences of your behavior before you make a decision that will create a fissure in your principles.

I hope that someone tells your story well and that, as a leader, you have the courage to say No when needed.

Valarie Willis,
one of the original Certified Masters of The Leadership Challenge®, is principal of Valarie Willis Consulting in Loveland, OH where she focuses on strategic management consulting. An accomplished speaker, facilitator, consultant, and executive coach who has worked with Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, associations and nonprofits, Valarie can be reached at val@valariewillisconsulting.com.


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