The Accidental Leader Who Changes the World

Today is President’s Day, a day in which I always reflect back on the birth of our country. I know I’ve mentioned it before but I was born in Boston and spent my early years there, with many a weekend or summer day spent exploring the Freedom Trail.  One of my great-grandmothers was born in a home behind Paul Revere’s, and I was infused with a sense of patriotism at a very early age.

The book John Adams by David McCullough does an amazing job of bringing those early years of our country to bold-colored life.  More specifically, it imbued me with a clear understanding of the real depths of the sacrifices made by our early leaders – life-altering sacrifices made on behalf of their country.

So today, as we take on the topic of “the accidental leader” for this week’s Leadership Chat, I’d like to focus on the first few Presidents of our country who I believe are the best example of accidental leaders: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.

When you think of an accidental leader, what comes to mind? For me it’s:

  • Someone who finds themself unexpectedly in a position of leadership to which they did not originally aspire
  • Someone who may or may not actually be practiced in the art of leadership
  • Someone who rises to the occasion, sometimes against great odds

What is it that enables them to successfully meet the challenges they are unexpectedly faced with? In the case of our first few Presidents I ardently believe it was the following:

  • Fortitude
  • A strong sense of values and belief structure
  • Loyalty to something much larger than themselves
  • A willingness to make life-altering sacrifices for that larger cause – to stand up when others were afraid to
  • Optimism laced with a healthy amount of skepticism
  • Vision – above all other things – a clear vision

I think these are all demonstrated magnificently in McCullough’s book as he recounted the following in regard to the final hours of the writing of the Declaration of Independence:

To no one’s surprise, Adams did not sit silently by.  He was present every hour, “fighting fearlessly for every word,” as Jefferson would write.

No man better merited than Mr. John Adams to hold a most conspicuous place in the design.  He was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and the defender against the multifarious assaults encountered.

Finally, to Jefferson’s concluding line was added the phrase, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” an addition that Adams assuredly welcomed.  Thus it would read:

And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

We all know that there are numerous “accidental leaders” right now all over the world making real changes to our world.  People put into positions they might not have anticipated even a week ago, who are rising to the occasion.  Many of us are writing and talking about these changes while others are taking life-altering actions, and a quote crossed my desk thanks to Susan Young by Henry David Thoreau that made this more poignant:

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live

I believe that when there is a willingness to make deep, life-altering sacrifices for your country – or for any cause larger than yourself – you are demonstrating a love and loyalty that will be your “North Star” regardless of the strength of the challenges you are surmounting.  This is what I believe separates the “accidental leader” who changes the world from the “accidental almost-leader” who crumbles under the pressure.

What do you believe? Please share in the comments…you always make me think bigger and differently in such positive ways.

And please join Steve Woodruff and me, along with the brilliant Leadership Chat Community on Tuesday evening, February 22nd at 8:00 pm Eastern Time as we honor President’s Day by discussing “the Accidental Leader.” We’ll share insights and experiences -you won’t want to miss it! Everyone is welcome!

You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn at I look forward to seeing you there!

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Photo of John Trumbull’s famous painting is Declaration of Independence by conservativemajority on Flickr.


  1. Wonderful wonderful post…. Timely as this is on my mind as well… (See my most recent post).

    This will be a fun #LeadershipChat for me – as I’m an avid American History #nerd.

    Two things struck me from the post – that I thought I’d share…

    1. This line: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” was no throwaway line. They really *were* risking their lives by signing that document. These were all relatively well-educated, professional men – who could have easily stood by and watched how the “wind blew” (so to speak). By taking the stand they did – they risked not only losing their honor and their sizable bank accounts – but if things went awry – they knew they would be hanged.

    2. One of the best things in McCullough’s book is that he captures that these guys were actually *people* (flaws and all) – not the caricatures they’ve become in recent shall we say (ahem) recountings by some of our newer congressional representatives. One of the main reasons that Adams was “sitting by” and “fighting for every word” was that he was deathly afraid that he would be overshadowed by Jefferson. Adams was an amazingly smart – but really quite insecure man.

    Some other amazing book recommendations:

    * Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
    (as an aside, AH is my favorite Founding Father)
    * The American Creation by Joseph Ellis
    * A Leap In The Dark – John Ferline
    * 1776 David McCullough

    See ya Tuesday!
    Robert Rose´s last blog post ..So- You Say You Want Revolution For Every Revolutionary – There’s A Revolutionee

    • Thrilled to have found another fellow history nerd – yes, this will be a fun #LeadershipChat and your comments are spot-on. I actually had thought about including that quote “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

      I think the reminder of the actual sacrifices and risks they took in honor the country – as you say, they really were risking their lives – is a tremendous reminder for us today. And thank you so much for the recommended reading! You’re the best – see you tomorrow night!

  2. Beth Collier says:

    I love this, Lisa! So few people even think about the sacrifices our founding fathers made for all future generations. I wish we had leaders today who embodied such passion and recognition of the ‘divine providence’ that allowed this country to be born.

    • Thank you so much and eloquently said, Beth. I love that you used the word passion and that what resonates most with you is the recognition of the undeniable importance of “divine providence” – I wish we could more freely talk about it in this day and age! Hope you’ll join us for #LeadershipChat to talk more about it! Thank you for being here and taking the time to share your feelings.

  3. Lisa, great post and very timely!You did an excellent job summarizing the key attributes of a leader.

    One of my favorite quotes on leadership is from his son, John Quincy Adams, who said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more and become more, you are a leader”. I end many leadership workshops with this quote because I think it says a great deal about leadership.

    I plan to catch with you on Leadership chat in the next couple of weeks. I have a coaching telecourse that conflicts with it for a couple of weeks. Many thanks for that invitation!

    Craig Juengling´s last blog post ..Build Your Plan and Chart Your Course Fifth in the 6 Part Series called VEESSO

    • Craig,

      For some weird reason I didn’t see your comment until now – so sorry about that! Thank you so much for the JQA quote – it’s beautiful and truly resonates. So honored to know you’ll be joining us for #LeadershipChat in a few weeks – looking forward to that and best of luck as you finish your coaching sessions!

  4. It’s so funny – the first time you mentioned your relationship with Paul Revere’s house, I had just seen it for the first time. If I ever move to Boston, I probably will not do anything aside from walk around aimlessly on the Freedom Trail. How will I make money? No idea!

    Accidental leadership is a great topic. One can say that a person is thrust into unexpected situations. How could Abraham Lincoln have known, when he first started running for President, that the country would do the unthinkable and split apart upon his election? How could FDR have known that Pearl Harbor would be attacked, leaving the US little choice but to get involved in WWII?

    Then again, if you look at some of the leaders who are constantly portrayed as accidental leaders, you start to notice that while they may not have known exactly what was coming their way, they were bound and determined to be in the thick of things. George Washington may not have known he would be the Father of his country, but he sure was involved in the Revolution. John Adams and Abigail Adams may not have seen the end of the path they were on, but they were fully cognizant of what they were doing.

    Is that truly accidental? Is it opportunity meeting preparation?

    Great post, Lisa.
    Marjorie Clayman @margieclayman´s last blog post ..When Sam Met Twitter

    • Such brilliant point, Margie… My response is they became accidental *leaders* because they were on paths that were preparing them to say, “yes” when they so easily could have said, “no.” Can’t wait to talk more about it tomorrow night – and did you see Robert’s list of recommended reading? I love this group!

  5. Lisa,
    This is a great post! It is amazing how often leaders are called upon at a moments notice. One thing I believe is that leaders are people who set a specific standard on how they are going to life. Leaders are not the position or title, they are people that embody true leadership qualities and characteristics. The leaders you mentioned were just that type of leaders. They were true leaders that just stepped up to the plate when they were called upon. Thanks, Brandon
    Brandon Jones´s last blog post ..Leaders- Why Aren’t You Having Success

    • Thank you, Brandon – I appreciate that! I agree, it really is amazing how some are called at a moments notice and step up to the plate – what courage that takes. :) And I couldn’t agree with you more that these particular leaders really did embody a very special type of leader – genuine love of the greater cause and their fellow man. So glad to have you here and hope to see you tonight!

  6. Lisa,
    Last month you wrote about “getting comfortable with discomfort”. I left a comment where I said:

    “Today as I read your post, I didn’t really think of business leaders, but instead of King George VI. Maybe you have seen the film “The King’s Speech”, if not, I hope you will, as I am sure you will be drawn into this story that we all feel we knew or understood by learning history…but oh, how this man suffered with his flaw, but knew that if were to lead his country he had to get comfortable with his discomfort, deal with self-awareness, and be willing to accept help from a common man.

    This is a true story about how technology and one being forced to face the world with new technology, perhaps changed the world!”

    King George VI was an accidental leader. It happens frequently in politics – an assasin’s bullet, a skiing accident, a plane crash, a suddent illness…sometimes the next in line steps in, or a spouse. In King George VI’s case it was love that made him an accidental leader.

    I guess my one thought is this, not all accidental leaders are successful, but I think they give it their best effort. Some grow into the position and some know when it best to step aside. And they, indeed, might be the best leaders!

    I might write more about this regarding business. My favorite accidental business leader is Gert Boyle. Do you know her?

    Judy Helfand´s last blog post ..Chris Brogan Wants A Pony Like Jack Snyder Wanted An Elephant!

    • Judy, no I don’t know Gert Boyle – but I am anxious to hear more… And I’ve been wanting to see the movie but have not had a chance – you’ve made it very clear to me it needs to be my top priority at my first “free-time” opportunity! What excites me is how you say it was love that made him an accidental leader… can’t wait to see that play out. Hope you’ll be joining us tonight! See you soon…

  7. I think that another key personality trait has to be honesty, which is related to fortitude. When boiled to its essence, and the choice to lead comes down to you versus Your Conscience, the leader is ruthlessly honest with him or herself.

    “Am I willing to put up or shut up? Am I willing to embody my principles?”

    The answers to those question determine true leadership, and they generate a magnetic pull. When someone has had the courage to be that honest with him or herself, others are compelled to follow.
    @mckra1g´s last blog post ..mckra1g- Coffee Check Guitars Check No more excuses Work beckons ttfn ♫ http-blipfm-123dvb

    • Molly that’s brilliant – not just honesty in the role but being “ruthlessly honest with him or herself.” What a beautiful insight…I have to mull this over before tonight! And I love your point about magnetism, I think that’s really critical for a leader who must truly motivate their followers. Hope to see you tonight – it wasn’t the same without you last week. :)

  8. Dont ask me why but when I finished reading your post, I was reminded of this quote from the TV show MASH:

    “Frank, do you know what a hero is? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he’s somebody who’s tired enough and cold enough and hungry enough not to give a damn. I don’t give a damn.” — Hawkeye
    Steve Olenski´s last blog post ..Consumocracy

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