The Surprising Leadership Example of Mark Twain

There are a preponderance of leadership examples to be taken from the annals of military conflict.  These are both interesting and instructional.  Perhaps the reason so many demonstrations of the principles of leadership are available from battles and wars is true leadership becomes most visible at times of extreme circumstances.  War is as extreme as it gets.  But most of us are not engaged in wars and battles, at least not of the military variety.  We can benefit from the examples of everyday people living everyday lives that utilize and implement the same leadership principles demonstrated by war heroes.

Mark Twain

One such example is Samuel Clemens, whose famous pen name became Mark Twain. Few would be quick to consider Twain as a leader.  In fact, a case could be made for calling him a coward: twice he fled the scene when faced with dangerous circumstances.  After causing a conflict with another man, Twain skipped town when threatened with a duel.  Also, many have speculated that when Twain went to Nevada with his brother it was largely to escape the American Civil War. But Mark Twain’s example is enriching precisely because he resists the stereotypical hero cast.  He was not brave or courageous in the physical sense, or influential in assembling teams of people aligned in some great common purpose.  But leadership and leadership principles are more profound and at the same time more subtle than the expected heroic examples.  Leadership is also about results, change, assaulting the status quo, having the determination and the individuality to express oneself sincerely in the face of opposition, and about persisting through trying circumstances.  And largely, leadership is about taking a group of people to a place where they have never been before.  These are precisely the things Mark Twain did.

Born in 1835, Mark Twain has been accused of living a life of profound “accidental” timing.  He came of age coincident with the great (but short-lived) steamboat era, and became one of its romantic captains. Twain was on hand as a speculator in Carson City just after silver was discovered there at the world famous Comstock Mines.  He experienced the Wild West when it was still wild; seeing gun fights, buffalo hunts, stage coach travel, and the Pony Express first-hand.  He had also seen slavery up close and personal.  His father in law was active in the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape.  Twain saw first-hand the birth of the American Red Cross, the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, the beginning of the United States Income Tax, experienced some of the first oceanic steamship travel, was a participant on the first organized luxury tour in U. S. history, was on hand in the gallery to see the vote for the impeachment of president Andrew Johnson, and had the first private telephone in his city installed in his house. 

Examining the life of Mark Twain is like taking a tour around the globe and meeting all the people of caliber alive at that time.  He was personally acquainted with President U.S. Grant, and was instrumental in encouraging Grant to write his now famous memoirs.  Twain was friends with Artemous Ward, Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William James, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Daniel Beard, the founder of the Boy Scouts.  He worked for Senator Stewart while the statesman drafted the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Twain was on hand with Anson Burlingame and the first treaty of the United States with China.  Twain was instrumental in encouraging rich benefactors to give scholarship money to Helen Keller.  He met the original “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng.  He introduced Winston Churchill at the Waldorf Astoria.  He dined with Teddy Roosevelt (who hated him), and played put-put golf with Woodrow Wilson.  Twain was friendly with Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, and the Prince of Wales (“Edward the Conqueror”, later King Edward VII).  Andrew Carnegie made his famous admonition to Mark Twain about “putting all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket,” commenting on Twain’s terrible history of speculative investing and diversification.  Twain knew Brigham Young, Jefferson Davis, Napoleon III, and stayed with Czar Aleksandr II, Emperor of Russia.  He was photographed by Matthew Brady, was friends with Frederick Douglass, and knew Horace Greeley the abolitionist and founder of the New York Tribune.  Twain knew P.T. Barnum of circus fame, and the famous British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and he dined with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who would lead that country and the world into the first World War. 

Arguably, there has never been an American who was so intermingled with the trends and trend makers of his day as was Mark Twain.  As a writer, Twain could not have hoped for more exposure to material upon which to comment and be inspired.  Twain was on hand with a front row seat for most of the changes taking place in the new United States and around the world.  His personal contact with dying trends and his direct involvement in new ones gave him a unique perspective that found its way to his pen.  When Twain got involved in journalism the profession was just entering its own budding era.  Twain began writing just as America, an infant country struggling for eminence on the world’s stage, was finding its own voice.  Again, Twain was right in the middle of change.  He was one of the first writers to begin using recorded dictations, he turned in the first type-written manuscript to a publisher, and he conducted some of the world’s first newspaper interviews.

But Twain’s involvement with trends new and old, his familiarity with the great names of his day, and his extensive experiences are not really the sum and substance of his leadership example.  The reason Mark Twain is noteworthy as a leader is because of the changes he himself brought about in the American literary voice.  He was a daring pioneer and a “first of firsts.”  He was one of the first to write dialogue phonetically as it is actually spoken.  He was one of the first to give slaves, children, southerners, and a wide range of dialects their true voice.  His writing wasn’t seen as proper and didn’t follow the unwritten rules that were expected at the time.  He enraged literary critics with his style because it was seen as lowly and disgusting.  Mark Twain, whose works seem so harmless to our standards today, was nearly scandalous in his own.  Twain’s new territory was the staking out of honesty in writing.  He wrote it the way it actually was, without bowing to pretense or aristocratic rules, and he wrote to a country about a country at a time when that country was itself coming of age.  According to biographer Ron Powers, “. . . the American Vandal was more than the sum of these parts.  In his hard-headed, bull-in-a-china-shop way, he was the ambassador of a newly industrialized, populous, and therefore consequential America – no longer the familiar apologist for a backwoods culture sneered at by the French and English and Italian aristocracy, but the envy of all these, and damned proud of it.” Twain’s leadership was evident in the way he showed America to itself.

Toward the end of his life, Twain got even more outspoken, especially against the tendencies in America toward imperialism.   Also, according to Powers, “Mark Twain was virtually alone among journalists in his reportage of Jewish Europeans as caught in the pincers of rising nationalist antagonisms.”  When warned of how his new tirades might erode the goodwill he had accumulated through years of being America’s top entertainer, Twain responded:

“I can’t understand it!  You are a public guide & teacher, Joe, & are under a heavy responsibility to men, young & old; if you teach your people – as you teach me – to hide their opinions when they believe their flag is being abused & dishonored, lest the utterance do them & a publisher a damage, how do you answer for it to your conscience?  You are sorry for me; in the fair way of give & take, I am willing to be a little sorry for you.”

Powers wrote, “The publishing industry could not handle his [Twain’s] strongest ideas.” Twain himself wrote, “Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside: then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can’t print the result.”  Leaders assault the status quo.  They can’t stand to leave things the way they found them.  Leaders also deal in reality, no matter what other people think.  They are driven by what they believe and have to do what they feel called to do.  And leaders must be true to their conscience.  They don’t compromise their principles; they stand for what they believe in, even if it is costly.  Leadership is also about getting results.  Here again, Twain’s example shines through.  Mark Twain changed the face of American literature, entertainment, and the public image of the new country itself. 

Each of us must understand that we are all called upon to lead at some point, and probably many points, in our lives.  We will be called upon in big ways and small. We need not be military leaders involved in colossal struggles.  We need not have positions of power or authority.  We simply need to follow our convictions, respond to the inner call to greatness, take a hold of whatever it is God has seen fit to assign us to do, and do it with all honesty and might.  Confronting brutal reality, assaulting the status quo, and doing that which is in us to do, are the hallmarks of leadership available to everyone.  May the Mark Twains of our history inspire us to lead in whatever capacity in which we find ourselves. 

This article was originally posted at

One response to “The Surprising Leadership Example of Mark Twain

  1. Love this, thanks for writing it! What a colorful life! I’ll never forget you quoting Mark Twain with with “Those who don’t read the paper are uninformed and those who do are misinformed” never more true than now…

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