What The Play “Hamilton” Teaches Us About Effective Leadership

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What The Play “Hamilton” Teaches Us About Effective Leadership

Written by: John O’Grady, Forbes Councils Member

John O’Grady, CEO and Founder, O’Grady Leadership Consulting Services.


The soundtrack from the Broadway hit “Hamilton” is inspirational and is a reminder of music’s incredible power. But there’s more: Listen to it from a leadership development perspective and you’ll find pearls of wisdom for leaders looking to better develop themselves and their team. The following are a few timeless lessons embedded in several of the show’s songs.

Create and take advantage of opportunities.

In act one, Lin-Manuel Miranda repeatedly belts out the words, “I’m not throwin’ away my shot,” as part of the song “My Shot.” His character, Alexander Hamilton, raps about his frustrations with the British, his vision for a better future and his desire to leave a lasting legacy.

Life is filled with windows of opportunity or “shots.” The questions we need to ask as leaders are:

• Do we create these spaces of advantage in our own life or team?

• How do we notice them when they show up?

• How do we act when they appear?

The best leaders create, watch for, recognize, leap into and guide themselves and those they lead into these spaces of advantage. More importantly, they develop this capability within those they lead.  

Think big.

In that same catchy song are the lyrics “Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up. Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up.” A compelling cause is greater than the self. The best leaders figure out ways to get buy-in. A challenge that, no doubt, the founding fathers navigated.

Over the long haul, it’s not necessarily the most talented teams that win, as we often believe, but rather the best teams. So, the question is how do we develop the best team? Creating an environment and culture where individuals feel compelled to sacrifice and give their best effort for a cause larger than self is a great way to develop a team.

Culture is the foundation. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quotation attributed to the business management guru Peter Drucker. With all due respect to Peter, I advise leaders that culture eats a hell of a lot more than strategy: It eats everything, all the time, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, and it’s still hungry. Culture has the appetite of a growing teenager. So, great leaders set and get their culture right. They align their vision, mission, values and personal leadership philosophy. Leaders deliberately — and with great purpose — figure out how they will routinely turn those words into action. They identify their culture carriers, recruit and retain for culture and develop talent. Leaders challenge and support individuals to become a team. They focus their energy on the team.

Control the controllable, discard the rest.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” Similarly, in the song “Wait For It,” the lyrics “I am the one thing in life I can control” remind us the best leaders come to realize they have minimal control over externals. Conversely, mediocre leaders apply an excessive amount of time thinking and worrying about these externals. A few things to remember:

• Our attitude and how we choose to respond to our environment are in our control.

• The space between stimuli and our response is the space we own. Extend that space as long as possible for the best decision making.

• With clarity comes freedom of action and the ability to focus on those things we can control; this is a competitive advantage worthy of pursuit.  

Fuel grit and resilience in your people.

In the song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” the powerful lyric “When you knock me down, I get the f#@k back up again!” represents the ability to embrace failure through grit and resilience. What motivates people and teams to persevere, to continually put in the effort? Leaders who guide their team to be able to answer for themselves the following three questions are well on their way to creating the motivation essential to grit and resilience. These three questions are:

• In terms of what I want or what is being asked of me, can I do it?

• Will it matter?

• Do I care about the outcome?

These are the building blocks of great success — the hallmarks that define champions. Leaders create a compelling narrative that help people arrive at an empathetic “yes” and support their reasons for “yes.” They also figure out ways to show tangible proof of micro-wins with those they lead. 

You must constantly be preparing.

A common characteristic amongst the best leaders in sports, business and the military is they all possess a humility to constantly prepare and develop themselves so that they are ready for opportunity when it presents itself. The song “The Room Where It Happens” is about the character Aaron Burr’s desire to have a seat at the table where political decisions are being made. It made me think about the difficult moments when leaders are alone. In order to make themselves ready for the big moment, they must prepare and sacrifice. They work to be the best when no one is watching and, in a way, on this quest to become more self-aware and improve their skills, they are alone in the room — just themselves with no place to hide. As a leader, do you seek to “catch” your people in moments of preparation and sacrifice? Do you remind them that comfort disables and discomfort enables? Great leaders understand “I’ve got to be in the room where it happens,” and getting to the “it” involves relentless preparation.

“Hamilton” is a powerful reminder that we possess free will and unlimited potential, and how we think and act can mean the difference between a mediocre or great executive and team. 

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October 26, 2020 at 06:22AM

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Dr. Sharon Lamm-Hartman