The Remarkable Leadership of Thomas Paine


A complete failure can change the world. Someone once perceived as a loser can inspire millions of people to do extraordinary things. Such was the reality of Thomas Paine.

Today’s leaders have much to learn from Thomas Paine. Leaders would be wise to evaluate what allowed Paine to become such an effective change agent, considering the rate of failure for change initiatives. Furthermore, such evaluations could help motivate leaders to hone various leadership tactics and skills while gaining insights regarding influence techniques. 

There is much information regarding Thomas Paine and his writings. However, there is little research regarding the assessment of his leadership and influence. Hence, this research will focus on the clues provided to us in the available literature regarding these topics.

Leaders who wish to improve might be wise to assess successful leaders who came before. Confidence, courage, a clear vision, strong communication skills, and the ability to influence others are all central to the leadership of Thomas Paine and his ability to impact such dramatic change. Understanding how Paine was able to wield and implement the preceding might provide great insight into how a leader can impact both short and long-term change initiatives today.

The Origin and Rise of Paine

Thomas Paine’s life started rough. Paine was born on January 29, 1737, in Norfolk, England (Foner, 2020). With limited education, Paine’s life in England was marked by repeated failures in earnings, his two brief marriages, and numerous occupations where he was said to be either unsuccessful or unhappy (Foner, 2020).

Paine found himself in London in 1774 and happened upon Benjamin Franklin, who provided Paine with a letter of introduction and the suggestion that Paine should move to America (Foner, 2020). On November 30, 1774, after almost dying from a bout of scurvy, Paine arrived in Philadelphia and found work as the managing editor of the Philadelphia Magazine (History, 2009). Within months, Paine would begin to change the world.

Characteristics of Paine’s Leadership

Leadership can be measured in many different ways. Despite an abundance of literature on the topic, a divide exists between academia and practice regarding the best approach for such evaluations (Kanji, 2008; Crawford & Kelder, 2019). Still, certain hallmarks of leadership are often used for these assessments. In this review, we examine some of Thomas Paine’s skills, traits, qualities, and characteristics with an emphasis on confidence, courage, vision, communication, and overall influence.

Evidence of Confidence

It is generally accepted that successful leadership depends on confidence to rally support, win allies, and gain credibility and influence (Van Zant & Moore, 2013). Northouse emphasizes confidence as a positive psychological attribute of Authentic Leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 203). However, it is essential to note that the word confidence has a couple of meanings. While it is true that confidence is often associated with the feeling of self-assurance or appreciation of one’s abilities, it also relates to the state of feeling sure about the truth of something (Oxford, 2020). In many ways, Thomas Paine embodies both definitions.

Thomas Paine not only believed his truths, but he shared them in a way that captured the hearts and minds of entire continents and helped to shape policy and doctrines around the globe (Medina, 2015). Paine would not only write about his ideas; whenever possible, he would take the opportunity to preach his doctrine of human freedom (Meng, 1946). It did not matter where in the world that opportunity was; Thomas believed in his views so much that he found himself preaching his ideas throughout the colonies and in France (Kingsley, 2019). He was so confident of his truths that he dedicated his life to sharing them.

Evidence of Vision

Northouse suggests that effective leaders construct compelling visions that ultimately influence and guide people’s behaviors (Northouse, 2016). Thomas Paine provided the world with a clear and accurate vision of freedom and liberty within the construct of organized society, and Paine was the first to offer a modern idea of cosmopolitanism that defies strict nationalism (Walker, 2000). His writings often reflected visions of peaceful, democratic, and egalitarianism, and he helped people see and understand that a truly representative government was not only possible but that it also required the participation of the people who could exercise their power in support of the common good (Dennehy et al., 2006). Many today take such ideas for granted, but it can and will be argued that, without Paine’s vision, these ideas may not have become a reality.

While unknown to many, the philosophy of free thought in America is attributed to Thomas Paine (Kingsley, 2019). Paine’s vision of a free-thinking society required reason from a non-biased perspective. Because of this vision, Americans now enjoy the separation of church and state, which Paine played a fundamental role in achieving (Dennehy et al., 2006).

Paine also advocated for the system of checks and balances (Dennehy et al., 2006). However, he also planted seeds for the abolition of slavery with his article “African Slavery in America,” which denounced the African slave trade (Foner, 2020, para. 4). Furthermore, he helped people see the benefits of universal human rights, general welfare, universal education, and technological and economic development (Dennehy et al., 2006, p. 184). In this, it could be argued, in many ways, that the modern era is due to the visions and influence of Thomas Paine.

Evidence of Communication

It has been said that communication is at the heart of leadership and that effective communication requires descriptive and intentional messaging that is consciously and purposefully delivered (Shriberg et al., 2005). When done correctly, written communication is said to be one of the most effective modes of communication (Manker, 2015). Without effective communication, leaders cannot paint a clear picture of the future they seek and struggle to convey the details of what their version of success might resemble. Therefore, leaders must be able to communicate visions and goals in a way that is easy to understand and motivates followers to achieve success (Luthra, 2015).

Thomas Paine is explicitly known for his writing. In biographies written about him, Paine is often framed as an influential writer and pamphleteer whose writings influenced the American Revolution (A&E, 2019). However, his written communication was so effective that his words are still being studied and pondered to this day (Medina, 2015).

Evidence of Influence

Influence is the degree of actual change in the target person’s attitudes or behaviors (Shriberg et al., 2005, p. 116). As previously mentioned, Paine’s writing helped mold policy and events worldwide, and his influence is riddled throughout the origins of the United States (Medina, 2015). Aside from influential pieces such as “African Slaves in America,” he is also responsible for documents such as “Agrarian Justice,” which spoke of inequalities in property ownership, and “Age of Reason,” which was a Deist document promoting evidence of God but denouncing organized religion (Foner, 2020).

Paine became an international icon after the publication of “Rights of Man,” which advocated individual liberty and limited government (Kingsley, 2019, para. 5; O’Gorman, 2006, para. 10). “Common Sense” is credited as the most significant source of influence for colonists to take up arms against England (History, 2009). John Adams is quoted as saying, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain” (History, 2009, para. 11). In other words, the fight against England would have been pointless without the inspiration Paine provided. Paine’s words rallied many to the cause of liberty and encouraged the resolve necessary to see it through.    

Of course, Paine’s work was not all theoretical. Paine was also a man of action. As a clerk for the Pennsylvania Assembly, Paine wrote the preamble for an abolition act that freed 6,000 slaves (History, 2009, para. 16). When Paine worked as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Nathanael Greene and witnessed the conditions Washington’s troops endured during the winter of 1776, Paine wrote the Crisis paper that provided us with the iconic line “These are the times that try men’s souls” (Foner, 2020, para. 6).

Evidence of Courage

Dr. Bill George, a leadership professor and senior fellow at Harvard Business School, suggests leaders need the courage to go against the grain because such boldness inspires people to partake in revolutionary and societal change (George, 2017). Courageous leaders offer opinions and solutions that may be unpopular, develop new models when old models are not working, reinvent themselves when necessary, and, arguably the more important part, they never give up on doing the right thing (Walston, 2003).

The dangers of being this type of leader are not often discussed, but it takes tremendous courage to stand in the face of opposition. Paine’s story demonstrates this kind of courage and teaches us that leaders must remain steadfast despite that opposition. Indeed, Paine captured the hearts and minds of millions, but because his ideas were so revolutionary, he was almost executed for them (Medina, 2015).

Furthermore, Paine greatly angered vast populations. At one point, thousands of people from hundreds of villages were publicly burning, shooting, and hanging effigies of Paine to the point that the papers ran out of room to report all of them (O’Gorman, 2006). Eventually, Paine’s ideas were considered so toxic that he was jailed, censored, and even abandoned by some of his revolutionary friends (Kingsley, 2019). Despite such setbacks and opposition, and as a testament to his courage, Paine continued to spread his messages (Foner, 2020, para. 16).

The Short and Long-Term Impact

As evidenced by the preceding, Paine’s words resonated around the world, and he was able to unite people in a common cause on both sides of the issue. Initially, he was celebrated, and he enjoyed substantial notoriety (O’Gorman, 2006, para. 9). Indeed, his ideas helped to change the modern world, starting in the colonies but reaching as far as France and England (Medina, 2015). However, the fire he helped create would eventually burn him. By September of 1802, the country that he helped unite in the cause of liberty had begun to turn its back on him and regard him as the greatest enemy of Christianity (Foner, 2020, para. 16). In 1809, he died broke and alone (Medina, 2015, para. 3).

Perhaps the world was not ready to embrace the full scope of his message. However, Thomas Paine’s ideas are still being studied to this day, which in many ways, is a testament to the power of his work (Medina, 2015). Some have recently argued that his work still provides a substantial cache of ideas and perspectives that have yet to be tested and that we would be wise to reexamine his words (Walker, 2000). Furthermore, while the era of American freethought is mostly considered to be over, there is hope by some scholars that the movement devoted to science, morals, free discussions, equality, and education, will once again be revived, despite the preferred tribe mentality of most (Kingsley, 2019, para. 21).

Leadership Assessment

There are several versions of what are said to be pillars of leadership. However, characteristics such as courage, confidence, and communication are common in such listings (Thompson, 2015). The Army says great leaders “provide purpose, direction, and motivation” (Department of the Army, 2019). Jack Welch is quoted as saying that great leaders “create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion” (Tichy & Charan, 1989). Holistically, and specifically regarding what has already been provided, it can be argued that Thomas Paine embodied authentic leadership. Nevertheless, how does Thomas Paine match up with actual leadership theorem and research?

Research on this topic is limited. However, the available research does support that position. One of the more robust reviews to demonstrate this comes from Robert Dennehy, Sandra Morgan, and Pauline Assenz. They argue that compared to established leadership theorem, Thomas Paine’s leadership holds up to scrutiny (2006).

In their comprehensive report, titled Thomas Paine: Creating the New Story for a New Nation, the team points out that Paine was a change agent who prompted a fundamental change, a trailblazer that sought out, defined, and helped generate substantial organizational alterations, a pioneer that helped alter the traditional culture, and a communicator that did all of the preceding using persuasive language that influenced the majority (Dennehy et al., 2006). Ultimately, the researchers note that large-scale change is built upon the foundations of change theory, institutional theory, organizational culture, and persuasion, and they conclude that Thomas Paine’s writings and actions employed all four of the preceding with a high degree of precision (Dennehy et al., 2006).


During this research, something rather profound surfaced. As stated, Thomas Paine was not highly educated. However, he had a great passion for the ideas he professed. Furthermore, he was known for his writing. The recipe found here is substantial.

A leader who cannot effectively communicate the vision (destination, success) will likely not see their desired results. Nevertheless, many people try to talk over the heads of the people they are attempting to communicate with and confuse the listener in the process. Perhaps it is an attempt to sound smart or convince others that they have a robust understanding of the issue. In this attempt, maybe they use a robust vocabulary, obscure words, or too much technical jargon. Regardless, by doing so, the message being conveyed can be lost or misunderstood.

Conceivably, Paine’s success might be rooted in his inability to talk over the heads of others. His limited education might have set him up for the ultimate success as a wide variety of followers easily comprehended his words. One can ponder the usefulness of having a message that is not adequately conveyed. While seemingly obvious, perhaps Paine is the demonstration of why keeping the message simple is so powerful.


Thomas Paine rose from nothing and fundamentally changed the world. His passions inspired a revolution, despite the general fear of powerful men and resistance to change. Paine’s confidence, courage, vision, communication techniques, and overall influence are evidenced by, in many ways, the world we see today. A better understanding of how Paine was able to accomplish this could potentially help many leaders in their change initiatives.

In either practice or academia, more research is warranted regarding the evaluation of Thomas Paine’s leadership. It would be wise to explore the various ways he crafted his messages concerning his visions, considering the effectiveness of his actions and the ultimate result. The available research appears to be primarily niche or overview. Future studies could focus on the construction of his words, the psychology or catalysts regarding the effectiveness of his messages, and perhaps where the line was that Paine crossed from hero to villain.

Not only does this review demonstrate the robust leadership of Paine, it further demonstrates the complicated and fragile nature of leadership in practice. The research provided here does not imply that Thomas Paine was perfect. No doubt, he might have had some emotional intelligence issues. Furthermore, Paine rubbed some people the wrong way due to his passions and personal positions regarding religion. However, this review does demonstrate that he had a significant hand in changing the world and did so, whether he meant to or not, using what are now considered to be established leadership principles and effective communication techniques. Future and current leaders would be wise to include Paine in their considerations.

Did you enjoy this article? You might also like “The Leadership of Thomas Jefferson.


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