What Can “Hamilton” Teach Us About Leadership?

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What Can “Hamilton” Teach Us About Leadership?

By: Steve Dunmore
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Stephen Dunmore, CEO, k-12 Schools, Sodexo North America

Thursday, June 16, 2016 - 11:00am


Tickets are hard to come by for the Broadway show “Hamilton,” which won the Tony Award for Best New Musical Sunday night. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a sensation across the country, with many people listening to its soundtrack on repeat. Much of its popularity comes from the innovative way it blends American history with a hip-hop-meets-show-tunes soundtrack. (It’s not every day you hear cabinet meetings imagined as rap battles.) Yet part of what makes the story so compelling is its real-life hero, Alexander Hamilton, who was talented and flawed in equal parts.

Hamilton was a Founding Father and America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and designed much of the country’s financial system. He was also plagued by a blackmail scandal and he was killed in a duel by a longtime enemy.

So what can we learn about leadership from Hamilton’s successes — and from his mistakes? Here are a few lessons:

Talent can come from anywhere
In the opening lines of the musical, writer Lin-Manuel Miranda calls attention to Hamilton’s humble beginnings as an orphan “dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.” It’s true: Compared with the rest of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton came from nothing and nowhere. He rose as high as he did based on his talent. Though he was mostly self-educated, he wrote a moving essay about a hurricane that devastated his West Indies home, which prompted community leaders to take up a collection to send him to the mainland for education. Hamilton went to New York City, and the rest is history.

Mentors can make careers or overshadow them
When the Revolution finally kicked off, Hamilton was set on achieving glory on the battlefield and turned down a few offers to be an aide to high-ranking generals. But when George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, asked Hamilton to be his aide de camp in 1777, it was an offer that Hamilton couldn’t refuse. Working under Washington paid off, but not as quickly as Hamilton hoped. Hamilton worked as Washington’s secretary, but he believed he deserved a battlefield command. It took four years for a frustrated Hamilton to receive it. When Washington became president in 1789, he made Hamilton his Treasury Secretary.

Passion isn’t everything
Passion may have been an asset when Hamilton was a revolutionary, but during his time as Treasury Secretary, his strong beliefs caused him to butt heads with James Madison, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. And despite his brains and ideas, Hamilton was often out-politicked by savvier operators like Jefferson, who helped publicize the fact that Hamilton was being blackmailed over an extramarital affair. The ensuing scandal destroyed much of Hamilton’s political power. Burr and Hamilton’s feud would prove fatal: After a long rivalry, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

What are some other lesson we can learn from Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers? Share your ideas in the comment section.

Steve Dunmore is CEO of k-12 Schools for Sodexo North America where he leads the operations and strategic growth for comprehensive service solutions in nearly 500 public school districts. Mr. Dunmore is also passionate about engaging youth and ending childhood hunger. He serves on the Boards of the Sodexo Stop Hunger FoundationYouth Service America and Women’s Foodservice Forum.