I’m a big fan of author and historian David McCullough. His writing has a way of transporting me back in time as few other authors can. Recently I have been immersing myself in his account of America’s second president John Adams. McCullough’s portrayal of John Adams leadership qualities has made no small impact on me.

If your early education was anything like mine, Adams presidency was glossed over with little more than a brief mention. Perhaps this was because he was sandwiched between two of our more memorable presidents – Washington and Jefferson. If this generation of American children is having the same experience I did, it’s a shame.

John Adams was a leader from whom we all have much to learn. While he never led men into battle or added almost a million acres to the United States, as the men before and after him did, I will venture to say, as McCullough does, that our country would not exist if it had not been for John Adams. The following list contains 12 qualities that made him a great man, a great leader, and a great example we should all strive to emulate:

  1. He valued education- Adams began his education at Harvard when he was fifteen. Here, he learned to learn and he never stopped learning. He read Homer and Cicero in their native languages and would go on to learn French and much of the Dutch tongue. He would often quote Shakespeare at length in letters to his beloved Abigail. He stressed education to his children and played a large role in their learning.
  2. He strove for a good reputation- As a young lawyer, Adams knew he would get nowhere without a good reputation. He, therefore, set out to become known in Boston for all the right reasons. He became well known in Boston as a good lawyer, but as you’ll see later, he wasn’t ready to compromise his principles in the name of maintaining a good reputation.
  3. He loved his wife- There is perhaps no greater love story than that of John and Abigail Adams. Abigail was his love, his mentor, his confidant, and he shared everything with her. His marriage with Abigail is perhaps the single greatest factor in his success as a leader. He, as every leader should do, always sought counsel from others. But his most valued counsel just happened to be his best friend and spouse. Adams never operated in a bubble and neither should you.
  4. He fought for what was right- Adams, always mindful of his reputation, knew that when he agreed to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, his reputation would be ruined, as the British were hated in Boston. But he knew it was the right thing to do. It was during the trial that Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.” What I admire about Adams is that he, more than anyone, feared to have his reputation tarnished, but he did not flinch when he was stuck between doing the right thing and maintaining his reputation.
  5. He was a great communicator- I tell my clients over and over that, it’s simply impossible to be a great leader without being a great communicator. Like his father, John Adams originally wanted to be a farmer. But when he saw the power of communication, he set out to become a great writer and speaker. He read books, essays, and poetry and worked his whole life to become an orator of the same magnitude as Cicero or Demosthenes.
  6. He saw his shortcomings and recruited others to fill in the gaps- Nobody is perfect, nor is anyone the perfect person for every situation. John Adams had no qualms admitting he was not the right person for a job. And when he found himself in a situation where he felt inadequate, he did one of two things: recommend someone else, and if that was impossible, he’d buckle down, learn what he had to, and then work diligently to achieve the desired outcome.
  7. He recognized talent- The ability to see the ability in others is absolutely essential to a leader. This is perhaps where Adams shined the brightest. He was the first to submit George Washington’s name for general of the Continental Army, a post being clamored for by many. And as if that were not enough, he recruited the pen of Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence and the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin to help edit it. McCullough pointed out both of these decisions by Adams as being so monumental in the formation of the United States, that if either of them had been Adam’s only contribution during his time with Congress, they alone would have made Adam’s a great man.
  8. He was brave in the face of physical danger- I debated whether or not to include this as many will never face a situation of great physical danger, but I decided to as many recent news stories revolve around violence, disasters, and bullying. These stories are full of people who risked their safety to save others, as well as those who stood idly by doing nothing. Leaders should always stand up for others and exhibit courage in the face of danger. Adams was no stranger to danger. On one of his voyages across the Atlantic, a British warship attacked his vessel, and Adams didn’t hesitate to grab a rifle to do his part in defending it. The ship’s captain had to order Adams below decks to get him out of the fray.
  9. He had unwavering integrity- Adams unwavering integrity stands apart when contrasted to the very publicly documented failings of so many of our leaders today. There is no evidence of Adams ever being unfaithful to Abigail while spending years in Europe away from her. He was also known for keeping detailed reports of all his expenditures while overseas on congressional money when many of his contemporaries did not. Many people disliked Adams for his political views, but they never could say that he was not a man of integrity.
  10. He had perseverance- As mentioned before, Adams readily admitted when he was unfit for a job. This was especially true while in France and Holland, serving as an emissary. He was staunchly patriotic and unashamed of his New England ways, which ruffled more than a few French and Dutch feathers. He was new to being a diplomat and found it tiring and ill-suited for him. But he pressed on. He pressed on for America and after securing a substantial loan from the Dutch government he commented to Abigail that he’d accomplished this, not out of skill that others did not possess, but out of sheer perseverance.
  11. He could see the big picture- Many of the Founders commented on John Adams visionary leadership. He never seems to have had tunnel vision during the fight for independence. Adams warned of becoming too dependent on France while fighting for freedom from the British, during the same time many Americans were ready to essentially trade George III for Louis the XVI as their ruler. Adams saw what France was trying to do with America and always kept America’s interests first. Seeing the bigger picture is a trait that leaders must possess if they are going to be successful in the long-run.
  12. He was a true servant- The public career of John Adams can be described as nothing other than service beyond self, a true servant leader. He and Abigail spent much of their marriage apart from each other because they both recognized the part that he was to play in the formation of the United States. He gave his time, his education, and his health to the cause of liberty. He never sought power, once writing in his diary that he was no Caesar. He would have much preferred to be a Boston Lawyer and then settle down as a farmer in his hometown of Braintree. But Adams believed in something bigger – he literally gave his life so that every American might have the freedom and liberty to live the life we choose.

Adams was an amazing man who maximized his time on this earth. I know I’m not the only lover of history out there, so let me know what you think of John Adams. What did I miss?