Our Founding Fathers Were Everyday Leaders

Our Founding Fathers Were Everyday Leaders

Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die. ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

It’s the fourth of July weekend and I am thinking about the leaders that led to us celebrating this holiday 235 years later. When we think about those men and women we think of them as great leaders…Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abigail Adams…and they were. But they were also ordinary people. They worked hard as farmers, they were business entrepreneurs and they leveraged their individual creativity. They had family problems, got enmeshed in small town politics and had their “buttons pushed,” just like the rest of us.

In 1990 I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Page Smith, the historian, and one of the (many) biographers of John Adams. He started his early career at Camp William James, a student youth leadership program in Tunbridge, Vermont, in 1940. I cherish the memory of hearing him speak at the 50 year anniversary celebration of Camp William James. As a university professor used to giving lectures that would keep his students engaged, he talked in a lively and humorous way about how profound the experience of Camp William James was for him. He was a big man with a bellowing laugh and the complete time he spoke tears were streaming down his cheeks. Talking about the experience was emotional for him, but that didn’t truly cause the tears, he had some disorder that caused the tears to flow. It didn’t matter what caused it, we felt listening to him that we had a window into his soul. One of his students said at his memorial that he was ‘a scholar with a heart.’ We saw it that day.

I think of Page today, because from that early start he never stopped being a leader 24/7.

Page was the founding provost of Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz’s first college. In this role, he gathered together the faculty and students and developed a rare and inventive educational institution. He established the William James Association, based on the philosophy that community service is the moral equivalent of war. He was an advocate for the community’s homeless; he was instrumental in establishing the Homeless Shelter and the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. He is the author of over twenty books. Page loved raising chickens, enjoyed sports events, played tennis, was an avid fly fisherman, and at 60 took up printmaking. “Page was well known and loved for his generosity, fierce integrity, high ideals, and gentle spirit.”

All that is true, but what I remember so vividly about Page is how he loved and lived so well. Every day. He had tremendous gratitude for life and appreciation for what he cherished. This appreciation already extended to his chickens, which he wrote a book about, The Chicken Book.

I remember in his talk over 20 years ago that he shared the story of how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826. Page loved writing the two quantity book about John Adams because there was so many wonderful letters between Adams and his wife Abigail to draw upon. He dedicated his books to his own wife and said, “To my wife, by whom I know what Abigail meant to John.” Years later, Page’s life ended two days after his wife, Eloise died of kidney cancer. He had leukemia, but what was abundantly clear is that he couldn’t go on living without his beloved Eloise.

As we celebrate our founding fathers, take a moment to mirror on their legacy and how you too can contribute to carrying on that legacy, not just by watching fireworks, but by develop yourself as leader 24/7. I have developed a list of 5 ways (plus one bonus way) you can develop your everyday leadership skills so that you also are a leader 24/7. On my list are excursion for Learning, Appreciative Practices and a Commitment to Values, all lessons that I learned from the example of Page Smith.

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