Leadership as Service

Thoughts on the HBO Miniseries, John Adams. Episodes V and XI. (Read my thoughts on Episode IV)

When Rome was a republic, Cincinnatus, a respected leader, was made dictator for a time to protect the city. He was given absolute power. When the crisis abated, he stepped down from power and went into retirement. A second crisis arose and he did the same thing — he never was seduced by the power.

Romans made him a legend for it. We named a city in Ohio after those who would be like him. It seems that selfless leadership is timeless.

And rare.

George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus when he chose to not seek a third term as president. We would have traded one monarchy for another. He knew this. He went to Mt. Vernon and lived out his days as a citizen.

When asked if presidents were humble upon accepting the office, political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato remarked:

It seems Washington’s example has been abandoned by the city that bear’s his name.

Power can masquerade as service leadership. The Adams administration rationalized the Alien and Sedition Acts, a wartime measure meant to preserve unity by threatening dissenters. Such blanket measures have been used throughout history to ensure power and trample rights. Sometimes warm blankets are not what they seem.

This is not an indictment on leaders as much as it is a critique on unchecked power that can prey on common human weaknesses, such as insecurity. It seems one of the most heroic qualities in a leader is not the wielding of power, which anyone would do given the opportunity.

Perhaps power is a paradox. In abandoning it, we find it. Likewise, we tend to trust reluctant leaders and find suspicious those who crave power at all costs. Adams, at his best, kept his mind on values that were indifferent to both his successes and failures. At his worst, power was his taskmaster.

The man who succeeded a president who would have been re-elected perpetually, would only serve one term in that most esteemed office.

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