Integrity Matters
April 2 , 2008

Adams had it partly right

Question: (E-337)

John Adams, second president, United States of America (1797-1801), is credited with having said, in 1775: “Most men today, (read: human beings way back in the 18th Century) are weak, evil and vicious.”


A 40-year-old farmer, attorney and emerging political leader, Adams was helping to forge a new nation from loosely affiliated states. And, yes, the politics and the pressures were real, as were the palpable tensions surrounding life-and-death decisions of our nation's earliest leaders. Nearly 235 years later, such observations about our basic nature still create a stir.

Some dismiss Adams' comments as overly harsh and judgmental. Others, unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of hand-to-hand political intensity, might never have experienced the sometimes-brutal maneuverings of single-minded operatives. Whether for better or worse, today's around-the-clock news reporting repetitively portrays many of our least admirable traits, underscoring the wisdom of the strong-willed legislator from Massachusetts. Mean-spirited selfishness, thankfully still co-existing with thoughtfulness, courage, kindness and generosity, is alive and well - effectively propelling self-serving individuals and organizations.

Born Oct. 30, 1735, the two-term vice president from Massachusetts - serving with President George Washington - was elected to the nation's highest office at age 62. In his era, he was considered elderly, managing to serve only one term. He was defeated in his bid for re-election by Thomas Jefferson. However, before he died July 4, 1826, he was able to see his son, John Quincy Adams, sworn in as the sixth president of the United States in 1825.

So, what can be learned about the present, and the future, by looking backward?

  • Effective leadership is not easy, never was and never will be. Knowledge, courage, discipline and sacrifice are the building blocks of substantive leadership - however they are learned and in whatever context they are refined.
  • Integrity is not a once-in-a-while activity, but is required, all the time, with everyone.
  • Dealing with weakness, whether one's own or the vulnerabilities of others, requires objective self-awareness, clear vision, perseverance and tremendous strength. Capitalizing on vulnerabilities serves as a springboard for personal development and organizational impact.
  • Overcoming evil can be accomplished by acting courageously upon the counsel of wise mentors - leveraging their insights while maintaining substantive faith, implementing a thoughtful plan with exquisite and uncompromising timing.
  • Viciousness is neither new nor nearing extinction. John Adams was hounded by some of the worst of the worst. His adversaries were cruel, nasty, brutal, ferocious, fierce, inhuman, violent and sadistic. And, he overcame them by maintaining his intensity, sensitivity and follow-through.

While we may not achieve perfection - integrity can remain our aim - personally, professionally and, in this election year, politically as well.


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