John Q. Adams’ tough choice

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

In 1807, a young Sen. John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts supported President Jefferson in voting for a national trade embargo against England, a position that hit Adams’ native region—New England—right in the pocketbook.

Adams watched as his own party deserted him and knew that his political prospects had tanked.

“This measure will cost you and me our seats,” he told a colleague, “but private interest must not be put in opposition to public good.”

Adams also stood with the president as the only Federalist to support the Louisiana Purchase, drawing his party’s wrath because the territorial expansion diluted New England’s power (even though it also kept Napoleon out of the United States).

“A politician in this country must be the man of a party,” Adams wrote.“I would [rather] be the man of my whole country.”

Indeed, a fellow senator observed, Adams looked at every public measure that came before him as though it were an abstract proposition, free of political considerations.

In the short term, Adams’ stand for principle was not rewarded. Only Adams’ father defended him. Former President John Adams wrote to his son praising him for supporting Jefferson, the very same man who had driven the elder Adams from office. The younger Adams said he could not give up his devotion to the national interest, and his father advised him to proceed steadily and cautiously, without regret.

Some people argue that Adams should have realized that the trade embargo would ruin New England and hardly scratch the British. But he was vindicated in the long run. Unlike many other brave figures, his star soon rose again: The nation elected him president, he also served as a diplomat and congressman, and he never quit acting on his own best judgment.

The lesson: Through all the battles you will see in business—accounting vs. quality control, marketing vs.manufacturing, the legal department vs. sales—never let politics seize the upper hand. Keep your decisions planted within the good of your organization.

— Adapted from Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy, Harper Collins Publishers.

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