I saw the musical Hamilton recently and noticed some lines that made me think. General Washington says, “Even now, I lie awake knowing history has its eyes on me.” It is during the first act, and Washington is granting Hamilton his first command. He talks about all the mistakes he made early in his career, then he says, “You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
I spent the first forty-eight years of my life trying to control the things around me. Like Hamilton, I thought that my value came from my accomplishments and what other people thought about me. I wanted desperately to create something (or a lot of somethings) that would outlive me. I thought I could control the narrative.
Unfortunately for both of us, we cannot. We cannot control the things or people around us. We cannot control the narrative. We certainly cannot control what is said about us after we die. However, we will influence people and situations and how we do that will impact what happens when we are no longer present.
When Hamilton was accused of being part of a financial scandal, he chose to reveal his affair with a married woman and the subsequent blackmail by her husband. His pamphlet “Observations on Certain Documents” dispelled any suggestion of his involvement in the speculation scheme but ruined him just the same. Additionally, he alienated the person most on his side.
Interestingly, it was that person, Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth, who ensured that Hamilton’s legacy lived on. She continued the work he was unable to do after his life was cut short. Given how significantly he had wounded and embarrassed her, why would she do this? Simply put, she loved him, and she had forgiven him. She knew his heart and saw the depth with which he cared and sacrificed for the things he believed in.
People will forgive much. As leaders, we are often in need of forgiveness, but I seldom see leaders who are truly repentant. People will forgive much if they can see sincerity and true change. The question isn’t whether you have done things you shouldn’t—you have. The question is whether you are humble enough to admit them, make amends, and grow.
I’m not suggesting that the way Hamilton admitted his failures was a great idea. While Hamilton’s pamphlet successfully refuted the more serious accusations against him, the sordid revelations of his affair permanently ended any hope he might have had of becoming president of the United States. However, I do see in Hamilton a true repentance and willingness to change.
History has its eyes on us. If you are a leader, people are watching you. Everything we do will be judged by others and the future. Sometimes we will fail. Sometimes we will win. Ultimately, someone else will write our story. We are building on the work others have done. If we are humble, honest, and willing to change, people may forgive our failures and find the good in our vision and passion. That connection is what will inspire them to continue our work after we are gone. That would be a story I could be proud of, and it is the Bison Way.