Leadership Lessons from John Sevier

Lately, I've spent a lot of time reading books about leadership. One of the most interesting books I've read on this topic was Richard Brookhiser's George Washington on Leadership. In the book, Brookhiser distills seven key leadership lessons from Washington’s three occupations -- business operator, military officer, and politician -- and suggests that the lessons Washington learned in the 18th century can be applied to personnel and task management in the 21st century. It's an interesting take on how history has contemporary applications in the workplace, and a book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this subject.

Since reading Brookhiser's book, I've wondered if similar leadership lessons can be learned from the life and experiences of one of Tennessee's own founding fathers, John Sevier. The month of September seems to be an appropriate time to delve into this topic. John Sevier was born during the month of September, died in the month of September, and gathered his men at Sycamore Shoals in late September in advance of his march to King's Mountain, where his legend as a Revolutionary War hero and leader was born.

Throughout my research on this subject, I've noticed deliberate attempts on the part of the early writers of Tennessee history to draw similarities between John Sevier's leadership qualities and those of George Washington. The comparisons are often striking and dramatic.

James Gilmore once wrote that John Sevier "was a gentleman born and bred; and in his veins flowed some of the best blood of the French and English nations. He had the force and fire of the Navarre Huguenots combined with the solid Anglo-Saxon elements which had here, perhaps, their highest expression in our venerated Washington."

Another writer went so far as to say that John Sevier's leadership qualities exceeded those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. In his biographical sketch of John Sevier, prepared in 1893 for the dedication ceremony of a monument erected in Sevier's honor, Oliver Perry Temple wrote, "Washington's skill saved his country, the genius of Hamilton rescued it from bankruptcy and ruin... and Jefferson was a great scholar, thinker, philosopher, an accomplished writer, and a far-seeing statesman," but "not one of them left a permanent impression on the hearts and affections of the people" like John Sevier. According to Temple, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton "held sway over the mind, not the heart," but in John Sevier "We recognize a friend, a relative, the leader of our clan." Temple went on to write, "In justice, in the capacity for war and for administration -- the three strong points in Washington's character -- Sevier had unquestionably high ability."

Charles Willson Peale's portraits of George Washington (1776) and John Sevier (1790) are strikingly similar in composition. Both men were soldiers and statesman, revered by their contemporaries, and by their early chroniclers. Washington and Sevier also had a commanding physical presence, which is evident in Peale's portraits of these two great leaders of the Early Republic.

As I've written on previous occasions, hagiography is quite evident throughout these early narratives, and admiration for John Sevier often exceeded mere mortal expectations. Yet, through these aspirational characterizations of John Sevier we can learn a great deal about the leadership qualities that inspired men to follow "Nolichucky Jack" into the wilderness of Watauga, on the slopes of King's Mountain, into the uncertainty of the State of Franklin, and eventually into the halls of government in the State of Tennessee.

So with that introduction, allow me to share with you a few leadership lessons that I have distilled from the writings of these early chroniclers of the life of John Sevier, "Tennessee's First Hero"...

Act decisively

"He was impulsive, but his impulses were high and honourable." [Ramsey, 108]

"His tactics were simple. He moved with such celerity as to be always the herald of his own coming. Then he dashed on the Indians, overwhelming and dismaying them by the impetuosity of the charge. It was the rush of the tempest." [Perry, 19]

Be calm and fearless in the face of adversity

"He loved a battle for its own sake, and was never so much at ease as when under fire." [Roosevelt, 295-296]

"His personal magnetism, his cool bravery and presence of mind, and his sound judgment won the confidence and admiration of his neighbors." [Turner, 81]

Be generous and kind

"His magnetism sprang from his overflowing kindliness and goodness of heart, and this it was, with his commanding abilities, which caused him to be recognized from the outset as their leader by these people, and made him, during a long life, the very soul of the Western commonwealth." [Gilmore, 17]

Communicate clearly and be persuasive

"He was fluent, colloquial and gallant—frolicsome, generous and convivial–well informed, rather than well read. Of books, he knew little. Men, he had studied well and accurately. Oral communications had been the source of his mental culture and his knowledge." [Ramsey, 108]

"Sevier could persuade the backwoodsmen to come round to his own way of thinking, while at the same time making them believe that they were acting on their own ideas... whatever he had was at the service of his friends and for the promotion of the Sevier party, which sometimes embraced nearly all the population." [Roosevelt, 181]

Treat your professional colleagues as equals

"He gave his commands as to equals, and, because these orders appealed to his men as being wise and practical, they gave unquestioned obedience. This loyalty of his friends formed one of the outstanding features of his success throughout his whole career." [Driver, 24]

Surround yourself with people who are good at what they do

"Much of his success was due to his adroit use of scouts or spies. He always chose for these the best woodsmen of the district, men who could endure as much, see as much, and pass through the woods as silently, as the red men themselves." [Roosevelt, 296]

Win friends and influence people

"He wielded great influence over his own followers, whose love for and trust in 'Chucky Jack' were absolutely unbounded... He was open-hearted and hospitable, with winning ways towards all." [Roosevelt, 295]

"His success in any line seems to have been determined by his genial good nature and by his ability to make loyal friends. He was a natural leader of men." [Driver, 24]

"His house was always open, and not unfrequently crowded with his old soldiers and comrades in arms. A wandering pilgrim from Natchez or the Missouri, or his countrymen from Cumberland or elsewhere, passing anywhere through the country, would find out the abode of their old captain, and was sure there to receive an old-fashioned welcome." [Ramsey, 710]

Ambition drives success

"He was without pride—if that feeling is not one of the ingredients that constitute a laudable ambition—for he was ambitious—not of anything low or ignoble: he was ambitious of fame, character, distinction and achievement. With such traits of character, it is not strange that Captain Sevier at once became a favourite in the wilds of Watauga." [Ramsey, 108-109]

Have a passion for everything you do

"John Sevier's love of pleasure provided welcome relief in a border country where daily life was laborious and relentless. Sevier could dance all night or fight all day, pursuing each with equal skill and enthusiasm." [Dykeman, 39]


Of course, no leader is perfect, and as I have stated on previous occasions, John Sevier's ambitions certainly led him to some questionable decisions. However, in the end, John Sevier was admired and followed because he had all of the qualities that you would expect out of a great leader. His reputation as a feared but respected Indian fighter, the unquestioned loyalty of his followers, and the longevity of his political career are all certainly a testament to that fact.

Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.

Selected Sources:

  • Carl S. Driver. John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
  • Wilma Dykeman. With Fire and Sword. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1978.
  • James Gilmore. John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder. D. Appleton and Company, 1887.
  • J. G. M. Ramsey. The Annals of Tennessee. Charleston, S.C.: John Russell, 1853.
  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1889.
  • Oliver Perry Temple. John Sevier: Citizen, Soldier, Legislator, Governor, Statesman. Knoxville, Tenn.: The Zi-Lo Press, Printers, 1910.
  • Francis Marion Turner. Life of General John Sevier. Neale Publishing Company, 1910.