The Pen is Mightier: Abigail Adams’ Words of Wisdom

“If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?”
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“If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?”

Abigail Adams wrote this in a 1778 letter to her cousin, John Thaxter. In those words of wisdom, and the countless otherwise words she delivered to her husband, John, Abigail Adams provided a question every modern leader should ask themselves.

Considered a founder of the United States, Adams is best known for her extensive correspondence with her husband. Though John Adams was considered by some to be the voice of the Revolution, having defended the wording and the intent behind the Declaration of Independence, he was voiceless without the leadership and counsel that his wife provided him.

The Adams Family

Abigail Adams has been the subject of considerable writings by historians. Her letters to her husband, which still exist today, are very well-known. Though John Adams — a successful lawyer, orator, continental delegate, ambassador, vice-president, and president — sported a very impressive resume, historian Joseph Ellis argued that Abigail was the stronger one of the two in First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

With a unique ability in consistently raising John’s spirits privately, Abigail also used her talents with a pen to raise his image publicly, writing official letters defending him during his one term as president.

As an advocate and mentor, Adams demonstrated the mark of a leader, rather than a boss. Her husband’s temper was well-known (and so brilliantly portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the HBO miniseries John Adams). John’s flaws as a boss were on display whenever his temper got the best of him. But leadership — especially one who builds others to be better than he/she is — was innate to Abigail.

In 1970, consultant Robert Greenleaf penned an essay called “The Servant as a Leader.” In it, Greenleaf argued that workers respond most to a leader who they can relate to. There is nothing that makes someone more relatable than taking the time to get to know those who work/live under them. Greenleaf argued that a leader’s most important priority is to serve, rather than lead. “The servant-leader is a servant first,” he wrote. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”

Unfortunately, we often equate with dictatorial qualities. A servant leader is the opposite, obviously. Dictator-leaders (or bosses as I will call them from here on out), order people around. Servant-leaders (leaders as I will call them from here on out), take time to develop his/her people. Bosses take care of themselves without regard for the needs of others. Leaders focus on what they can do for others.


If we only serve ourselves, especially when we are charged with leading a team, what will we experience? An uncommitted team, which results in high turnover, lower productivity, and/or an inexperienced workforce. Throwing high salaries can buy you some loyalty, but only until someone else offers more money. True leaders build cultures of low turnover, higher productivity, and a workforce who stays and contributes their experiences to the team. Commit to your workers, and they will commit to you.

There is merit to this.

The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela were practitioners of servant leadership. It is arguable to many who follow the Christian faith that the concept of servant leadership dates back to Jesus of Nazareth.

Revolutionaries like Abigail Adams — those who weren’t necessarily on the battlefield or giving speeches to the Continental Congress — also epitomized servant leadership. In an era when men were the traditional heads of the household, Adams provided her husband with the type of leadership that he sorely needed. She provided edits to his written and spoken words; she challenged his ideas — like when she famously challenged John to “remember the ladies;” and she defended her team (in her case, it was her husband’s presidency).

The Storytether

Many companies have proven that servant leadership can be scaled. The Container Store, for example, has a focus on its employees before its shareholders. Take a look at its letter to shareholders. Marriott International emphasizes the “spirit to serve.” Starbucks consistently invests in the well-being of its employees, and Nordstrom works in an “inverted pyramid” model that places sales and floor staff at the top of the pyramid, and executives at the bottom. The logic for Nordstrom is clear — the sales and floor staff bring in revenue.

Similarly, Abigail Adams knew what the best leaders know today — serve your team and they will perform for you. Service is the backbone of leadership. For “if we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?” Almost 250 years later, that question is still an important one.

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