Jefferson’s crisis communiqués: a model

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

The Revolutionary War raged on. Undetected British warships appeared in American rivers and set fire to the colonists’ warships as they were being built. Bullets for the colonists were in short supply because mines couldn’t keep up with the demand.

The wartime letters of Thomas Jefferson to George Washington and other Revolution leaders offer a vivid glimpse into the mind of a great leader in a time of crisis. Most of them contain the following four elements:

  1. A clear description of the challenge. Jefferson relates just where the enemy was, in what numbers and what kind of damage resulted.
  2. An honest report. Jefferson enumerated casualties, lack of ammunition and other weaknesses that had to be addressed.
  3. An evaluation of leadership. Jefferson clearly describes the injuries of the many colonial generals who were shot in battle, as a way of letting his readers know how those injuries were affecting the colonists’ ability to fight.
  4. A clear statement of immediate needs. Jefferson concludes most letters with a clear statement of the greatest priority at hand: where ammunition, horses or food were in shortest supply.
Lesson: Those four elements belong in the communication you send during difficult times.

-- Adapted from Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, available online through Project Gutenberg.

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