What Leaders Can Learn from a $20 Bill

It is interesting to me to observe the lens in which various people look at decisions.

  • Teachers look at how decisions can impact learning
  • Speakers look at how decisions can become inspirational
  • Historians look at how past decisions affect the future
  • Nurses look at how decisions advance human health
  • Managers look at how decisions affect the bottom line

As you know, I am a leadership junky and I am constantly observing things with a leadership perspective. I found the following story fascinating to examine using a leadership optic.


The Story

I was reading about a recent decision made at the US Treasury Department. Secretary Jack Lew has announced that in 2020 Andrew Jackson will be sent to the back of the $20 bill while Harriet Tubman will replace him on the front of the note.

Tubman is best known for transporting slaves via the Underground Railroad after escaping from slavery herself, then becoming a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement. Born into slavery, she not only raised herself out of bondage, she ran 13 missions to free some 70 friends and family from slavery. She is, without question, one of the most famous civilians in all of American history.

Jackson was the seventh president of the United States. His legacy is both one of the most studied and most controversial. Examples include his own ownership and outright support of slavery, signing into law the “Indian Removal Policy," and becoming the first president to implement the “spoils system,” whereby the person who wins the election puts their friends and family on the government payroll. He is also the first president upon whom both a physical attack was directed and an assassination attempt was made.

The Perspective

  • A teacher might share with students what it meant to be a conductor on the underground railroad
  • A speaker could use Tubman to inspire an audience to examine how their actions line up with their beliefs
  • Georgetown historian Michael Kazin took this perspective on Lew’s decision: “Our money is catching up with our history."
  • A nurse may want to examine the headaches and seizures Tubman suffered at the end of her life.
  • A manager might want to examine the financial impact of Tubman’s actions for slave owners or freed slaves

However, putting on our leadership glasses, let's look at Tubman’s actions in light of her emotional intelligence.

Linking Leadership to Action

When studying and applying emotional intelligence to our leadership lives, we are often caught up in the impact that OUR emotions have on OUR ability to lead. While this is an important aspect of any leadership model, it is woefully inadequate to focus solely on ourselves.

As leaders, we can not ignore our social responsibility to others. Social responsibility comprises both the desire and the ability to willingly and without restraint contribute to the benefit and well-being of others.

The idea is much deeper than whether you volunteer at your local food bank once a month. Socially responsible leaders have a conscious, deep, and abiding concern for others. Leaders who excel in this ability can resist the temptation to put themselves first, and instead, care and act compassionately toward others.

From the assessment work I do with emotional intelligence, leaders who lack enough social responsibility often have imbalances with their own self-actualization. Leaders who score high on self-actualization without balancing social responsibility will tend to put their own meaning and purpose ahead of others. They have their goals and objectives firmly established, then after all of their safety and security needs are met they will turn to considering the affliction of others. Most often what I hear is, “I work long hours, I have a family, I don’t have time to get involved."

I often wonder if this is what Martin Neimoller, a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, meant in his famous quote,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Social Responsibility, a very valuable emotional intelligence trait for leaders to cultivate.

Thank you, Harriet Tubman, for providing such leadership and caring about others, even when it meant risking your own life.

Thank you, Secretary Lew, you got this one right!


As leaders, we are surrounded by good causes these days where we can express our social responsibility. Your assignment is to examine your own leadership and see if this is an area you need to improve. Examine deeply what may be holding you back. If you see a need, resist your knee jerk reaction to assume someone else will take care of it and instead take action yourself.