Acting like John Adams

Using Your Mission to Earn Credibility
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John Adams, the second president of the United States, carried an impressive resume by the time he passed away in 1826. Aside from his role as chief of the executive branch, Adams served as the first Vice President, the first American ambassador to Great Britain, the first American ambassador to the Netherlands, one of the primary negotiators of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the War for Independence, and a Massachusetts delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. It was during his time as a delegate where Adams proved his value in front of the other American delegates by assisting with the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and being its most vocal advocate. For more insight into his life, be sure to check out the HBO miniseries John Adams, or its source material John Adams by David McCullough.

What was unknown to many — and what many found out when they read the aforementioned book or miniseries — was that Adams was the defense attorney in the trial for the British soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre.

That’s right. John Adams — the man with the most solid patriot credentials — defended the Boston Massacre perpetrators. And he won.

In Royal Defense

For those who have studied Adams’s life, this should come as no surprise. Adams consistently exhibited a few personality traits — a short temper and natural belligerence, but knowledgeable, wise, and most importantly, a man of high integrity. That sense of integrity led him to take on the Boston Massacre case, even knowing that he would become the least popular Bostonian in the city as a result. Nonetheless, he believed that every man was entitled to a fair trial and, though one of the leading Patriots in New England, wanted to ensure that the cause of liberty was not undermined by what could be perceived as lynch law.

Check out this scene from Episode 1 of the HBO miniseries:

For John Adams, British Americans’ rights as Englishmen were sacred. Regardless of his personal feelings towards King George III’s soldiers — the enforcers of his policies — Adams believed that mission was more important than his personal feelings and his personal reputation.

John Adams’s mission underscored all his actions.

In this era of divisiveness in the realm of politics and in our culture, it does not extend beyond reason that there are organizations that do not fulfill their mission when their personal values are challenged. During the American Civil Rights Movement, this was in full display as sit-ins and other forms of protests brought examples of businesses to light that refused to treat their patrons equally because of the color of their skin.

Compare that with one of the most successful companies today. Starbucks’s mission, which is spelled out on its website, is “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.” Despite some controversies regarding their holiday cups and a specific incident in a Philadelphia shop, Starbucks has consistently strived to live out its mission, even when it hurts. Its support of employees through quality healthcare, fair wages, and tuition coverage is well known. Additionally, its coffee is ethically sourced. Its mission is expensive, but Starbucks works to fulfill it nonetheless, which attracts a loyal customer base.

The Tether

Living out your mission may be difficult, but much like my colleague Frank Brennan’s take in his Real Values blog, an organization’s values and mission are meant to challenge it. And sometimes, fulfilling your mission means that you must serve those who you do not like, serve those whose values differ from your own and those who challenge your very core beliefs.

Take, for instance, the firestorm surrounding the Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Right Commission (2018) case, when a Denver-based baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple (note that this was three years after the Supreme Court decided the monumental Obergefell v. Hodges case in 2015). Despite the court ruling in his favor, Jack Phillips (the baker) faced a mountain of criticism as the case made its way through the court system.

Counter that with the owners of Chick-fil-A, who personally share Phillips’ religious and social convictions, and faced some criticism. Dan Cathy, the late owner of the fast-food chain, made those views public in 2012. The difference? The restaurant still served all people, regardless of sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Late last year, Chick-fil-A announced that they would cease donating to anti-LGBTQ+ groups as a matter of company policy.

The real values of an organization appear when its hardest to fulfill its mission. The most successful ones do not succumb to the very human action of selectivity. They act like John Adams.

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