I continue my leadership series based upon the lives of US Presidents by looking at leadership lessons from the fourth President, James Madison. Madison lived a life full enough for several people. He served as both a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a member of the Continental Congress prior to the Constitutional Convention. After the Convention, he was one of the key leaders in the movement to ratify the Constitution, both in Virginia and across the nation. His collaboration with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay produced The Federalist Papers, among the most important treatises in support of the Constitution and still widely read today and still coming in today at Number 3 on the amazon.com best seller list of books dealing with the Constitution.

In the first Congress in 1789, Madison became the floor leader in the House of Representatives, drafting many general laws. Most significantly for the Constitution and the Country, he drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution. For this he is known also as the “Father of the Bill of Rights.” He worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government. In 1791, he and Thomas Jefferson broke with the with the Federalist Party and led the organization of the Democratic-Republican Party. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, arguing that states can nullify unconstitutional laws.

From 1801–1809, he served as the third President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. In this role, he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the nation’s size. Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809, was re-elected in 1812, and presided over renewed prosperity for several years. After the failure of diplomatic protests and a trade embargo against the United Kingdom, he led the US into the War of 1812. The war demonstrated that the US had neither a strong army nor financial system. As a result, Madison supported a stronger national government and military, as well as chartering the Second National Bank, after having allowed the First National Bank’s charter to lapse.

That short summary barely begins to scratch the surface of Madison’s achievements. Yet within it one can see multiple leadership lessons going forward for the CCO. An article, entitled “Lessons From The Life Of James Madison, The Father Of The U.S. Constitution”, considered five lessons from his attempts to reform the Articles of Confederation, which he considered a failure. Yet he was not able to initially convince enough states to do so. But Madison learned from this initial setback. Madison did five things which a CCO can learn from going forward.

  1. Madison drafted a new Constitution which would become the basis of the current US Constitution. Yet he did not take credit for it, giving the credit to Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph. Leadership lesson – You can actually accomplish quite a bit more if you are unconcerned with who receives the credit.
  2. Madison determined that more states would attend a Constitutional Convention if the country’s most significant figure, George Washington, attended. Madison worked quite diligently to get Washington to attend, which he was successful in doing. Leadership lesson – Draw powerful allies who others in your organization will respect.
  3. Madison recognized there would need to be a record of what was agreed to as the debates proceeded so he volunteered to act as secretary for the Convention. Leadership lesson – You must Document, Document, and Document your business process, including compliance. If you do not do so, people will not understand what their obligations are going forward. Do not forget the regulators role, if it is not documented, it never happened.
  4. Madison created a team to articulate the need for a strong federal government, as opposed to the decentralized Articles of Confederation. This increased his voice and his presence. Leadership lesson – Tone at the top does more than provide the voice of one person. It should be the tone from senior management and the Board all the way down in your organization.
  5. After the Convention, there was still the job of persuading 9 of the 13 original states to ratify the newly drafted Constitution. Here is one of the signature innovations Madison created, that being a series of newspaper articles which were collected into The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Jay. Not only did they help to persuade a reluctant nation but they have stayed with us as some of democracy’s greatest political commentary ever. Leadership lesson – Use the tools available to you to communicate. In 1798 it was newspapers, in 2017 that means social media and other tools a millennium work force will utilize.

The leadership lessons from Madison did not end with his work on the Constitution. His presidential tenure provides several important leadership lessons for the CCO as well. Most notably was his response to the War of 1812, where he found the national army was in disarray when the conflict began and from the economic perspective, his failure to renew the charter of the First National Bank of the United States had severely impeded the government’s ability to finance the war effort.

His response to both issues demonstrated that when faced with facts on the ground which do not support your thesis or even your beliefs you need to change your program going forward. Madison did not think the US should have a standing army so allowed the army to fall into a placid state at the beginning of the crisis. From this, Madison resolved to strengthen the national army, most notably professionalizing the training of the officer corps at West Point.

The second significant issue was the First National Bank of the United States, whose charter Madison had allowed to expire in 1811. Recognizing his actions had damaged the country’s ability to pay for the War of 1812, Madison led the fight to charter the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. The Second Bank lasted until its charter lapsed under President Andrew Jackson in 1832.

Madison’s evolution on these final two issues points up a key ingredient for every CCO to be open to the think of those with whom you disagree. Madison made clear that when the situation demonstrated the ideas of others, even opponents, had merit he would incorporate their ideas and thinking into his own thinking. The Second Bank of the United States and standing military are but two examples.

Sitting here in 2017, we tend to see history through our own experience. We see Madison and the other founding fathers as a line of certainty running from the Declaration of Independence up to this day. However, in 1812 there was no certainty that the American experiment would survive. That it did continues to be a tribute to leaders like Madison who were able to adapt to circumstances to create a more perfect union of states.


For those interested in further exploring leadership lessons from Dunkirk, check out my podcast, 12 O’Clock High  where Richard Lummis explore the film, the history and much more on iTunes or on this site by clicking here.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2017