The relationship of the arts and leadership can be fascinating. In the musical world, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some of history’s most profound musical leadership moments – Shostakovich’s Symphony #5 performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Verdi’s Requiem performed in the Berliner Dom, Mahler’s Symphony #2 (The Resurrection) performed in Pittsburgh on the first anniversary of 9-11-01, and more recently we’ve seen Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in Chicago. In some cases these performances were intended to provoke listeners to new realizations and in other cases the confluence of history and art represented an emerging awakening.
Created before the tumultuous U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016, Lin Manuel thought that Hamilton might appeal to history teachers; the impact has gone far beyond what he or anyone else could have imagined. Indeed, the Hamilton musical has revived an interest in history for many U.S. and other citizen/patriots. Like Lin Manuel, we have been inspired to pick up the not-so-short (818 pages in length) biography of Alexander Hamilton (Chernow, 2004) to understand one of the “founding fathers” of America. Not only did we learn about a very talented, influential, and agonizing character, but we learned about the struggles required to cultivate the values, systems, and laws for a new nation. This 21st century awakening occurred at a time when the U.S. is being torn asunder by different views of how the public interest should be served.
The Hamilton biography is far too comprehensive and detailed to summarize in a blog post brief enough for browsers to read. Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating character because he came from very humble surroundings, an orphan from the Caribbean, immigrating to the early colonies in order to educate himself and seek a better future. His voracious reading, far-sighted vision, unyielding temperament, and unstoppable motivation resulted in his creating the U.S. Treasury Department, a national banking system, the conceptual basis of governmental debt and taxation, conditions for positive international trade, and the Coast Guard. He achieved these and many other things while earning the confidence of the first President of the U.S.A, General George Washington. After helping to win the Revolutionary war through military command, strategy, and management, he threw himself into the revision of the Articles of Confederation. He conceived of and wrote most of the articles in the Federalist Papers. This book was fundamental to the passage of the new U.S. Constitution when the Articles of Confederation were found inadequate in providing direction for a strong Executive, and complementary Legislative and Judicial branches for the new government.
These accomplishments all came at a significant personal and family price. Hamilton’s unwillingness to compromise often led to conflicts with his adversaries, resulting in both emotional and business costs. Ultimately, his pride and unyielding nature sacrificed personal and family reputation in order to preserve trust in him as an ethical governmental figure. The ultimate price of Hamilton’s commitment to living by high principles was his own death at the hands of his long-term acquaintance and eventual adversary, Aaron Burr.
What leadership lessons can the story of Alexander Hamilton, whether reading the book or viewing Miranda’s incredible musical based on Hamilton’s life, help us understand? Five that come to my mind are that: 1) there are consequences to following one’s vision or conviction, 2) it’s hard to stand one’s ground when others insists on compromise, 3) integrity is one’s most important asset, 4) we sometimes cultivate unlikely partners, and 5) striving is a powerful source for innovation.
These two pieces of art have come on the scene at an incredibly interesting time in U.S. history; the questions raised may stir many to consider the direction of the U.S. government far into the future. Particularly when it comes to a diverse society composed of immigrants across many cultures and points in history, Miranda’s Hamilton demonstrates both the difficulty of finding common purpose and the benefit of doing so.