John Quincy Adams perfectly defined leadership

John Quincy Adams was our country's sixth president, the son of Abigail Adams and John Adams, our second president. This is one of the things he had to say on the subject of leadership:

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

In less than 20 words, he elucidated the essence of leadership. Let's dissect this simple declaration and take a look at each of its elements to see what we can learn about leadership.

"...Inspire others to dream more…"

Dreaming describes leaders imagining things that might be, that don't currently exist - whether it's a new product or service, a new entity, a new solution to a problem, a better process, or a healthier, stronger company, community or country. Dreaming in this context is the active and purposeful use of our imagination, our creativity and our intuition. Oftentimes, great leaders are called "visionaries" because they are comfortable exploring the unknown, thinking and sensing what might be possible, rather than being content with the status quo. Innovation and aspiration are a leader's metier.

"...Inspire others to learn more…"

Learning is one of the hallmarks of an inquiring mind, the active search for new knowledge and skills. Learning requires a willingness to move beyond familiar levels of understanding and being able to say, “I don't know all there is to know. I have something to learn." Leaders are continual learners, and their example of personal and professional growth can inspire others to do the same. Learning more also describes the leadership quality of having an open mind, genuinely believing that others' viewpoints and ideas are of value, seeking input and honest feedback.

"...Inspire others to do more…"

Leaders are energetic and productive and usually accomplish a great deal. They have systems for organizing and planning, and know how to work skillfully with others in an efficient and effective way. They know how to delegate, which is another aspect of productivity. They also accomplish more because they set high standards for themselves, and are not content with mediocrity. Again, example is the best teacher, and their willingness to work hard, be diligent, and persevere is a great example for others, who in turn want to make a greater contribution, to be part of making things happen

"..Inspire others to become more…"

Becoming more is a term that describes the concept of growth and expansion. Leaders are constantly expanding their capacity to grow in their scope and depth of abilities. It may include becoming a more effective public speaker, a more skilled listener, or a better meeting manager, just to cite a few examples.  Over time and with the seasoning of experience, the leader becomes more of his or her authentic self and expresses more of his or her essential talents and character. Just as an acorn is a seed, it "becomes more" by growing into an oak tree.

The operative word in all of these precepts is "inspire." This is the essence of true leadership. Although leaders frequently do have great authority and "control" over some things, their true power comes from being inspirational. People support and "follow" leaders because they respect and admire them, because they are worthy of loyalty and regard.  There's a common misperception that  leaders "motivate" their people, but the truth is that leaders can only spark and cultivate the desire in people to dream, learn, do and become more. This is the alchemy of leadership - within a given context, to provide the necessary ingredients and environment in which people are continually inspired to be their best.

And finally, the beginning of the Adams quote is the subtle heart of the lesson, where we discover the key words, "If your actions..." Indeed, it is a person's actions that determine whether he or she is truly a leader. It's not the title on the business card or the slot on the organizational chart, but the individual's day in and day out conduct and actions that determine whether he or she is a leader. Or as the maxim goes: It's not what you say, it's what you do. •••

Mary Luttrell is a business strategy advisor who has helped hundreds of companies simplify complexity and increase success. She provides services in strategic planning, marketing, organizational performance, meeting and retreat facilitation, and executive/leadership coaching. Ms. Luttrell is an ISO - Certified Management Consultant whose firm has been named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America. Contact Mary at 707-887-2256 or To download her whitepapers or subscribe to her weekly blog on leadership, visit her website at

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