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Jefferson’s failure to verify

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

Even though it’s a cliché, it's still true that our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

For Thomas Jefferson, his strength lay in trusting people, but—especially when it came to financial matters—he trusted them too much. To use the signature phrase of a much later president, Ronald Reagan, Jefferson needed to “trust but verify.”

In 1818, Wilson Cary Nicholas asked Jefferson to co-sign a $20,000 loan from the Bank of the United States. Nicholas and Jefferson were connected not only by marriage but also as lifelong political allies and friends.

Nicholas already had co-signed two smaller loans for Jefferson, and now he assured the former president that he was worth at least $350,000 and could easily repay the money. The loan, in two notes, would come due in about 18 months.

Jefferson could have checked on his friend’s finances, but he didn’t. He co-signed the loan, apparently without much thought.

Things went downhill from there. A bank panic hit the country in 1819, Jefferson’s home at Monticello was plagued by fire, epidemic sickness, drought and a wicked hailstorm, and finally, Nicholas defaulted. When Jefferson got word, he was stunned.

Jefferson’s folly placed his grandson “in a perfect hell of trouble,” deeply encumbered with debt that took the young man two decades to repay. Although Jefferson had intended to free his slaves, they were sold. Monticello fell into ruin.

Lesson: You can’t be brilliant in everything, but think before acting on good faith alone, taking care to avoid colossal blunders that will undercut your leadership and blight your legacy.

— Adapted from Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, Alan Pell Crawford, Random House.

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