John Brown took responsibility for flaws

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Abolitionist John Brown gave his own life and those of three sons in raids that helped touch off the Civil War.

Brown’s personal history, though, shows a leader who balanced reason and zeal. By his late 20s, Brown had built a tannery that employed about a dozen men. He organized his neighbors to map out roads and join in singing classes, debates and sports, and he established a public school. He became postmaster of his Pennsylvania town.

One incident in particular involving his eldest son, John Jr., illustrates Brown’s leadership. As a 10-year-old, John Jr. often shirked chores to sneak out and play. Finally, Brown devised an account book that recorded the boy’s transgressions. Eventually, his son’s account was hopelessly overdrawn and his day of reckoning came.

Brown handed his boy a switch and they climbed to the second floor of the tannery, where they reviewed the account. Brown asked if each item was fair or needed to be adjusted, and if John Jr. had any good deeds to add. The tearful child agreed that the punishment — 25 strokes — was justified.

The boy took eight of them. Then, his father stopped.

“Seventeen more lashes are due, John,” he said, “and I will take them myself. I am your father, and it is on me that blame must fall for failing to teach you your duties.”

The boy burst into tears, but obeyed.

“After that,” John Jr. recounted 60 years later, “nothing could ever persuade me that my father could possibly do anything wrong.”

—Adapted from Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, Evan Carton, Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

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