Five Leadership Lessons from Jean Valjean

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 12.54.32 PMHollywood has decided to give us a gift this Christmas in the form of the movie Les Miserables – based on the Broadway hit musical, which happens to be extracted the classic book Les Miserables, penned in 1862 by renowned author Victor Hugo.

The story chronicles the life of Jean Valjean – a paroled convict who through divine providence receives a second chance to become an honest man. He seizes the opportunity despite facing significant opposition in his new life from a host of dastardly characters along the way.

Shortly after being released from prison and armed with a new lease on life, Jean Valjean walks from southern France to a small village in the northern part of the country where he innovates a method to create a more efficient process of producing claps for the regions’ traditional black bead and bracelet industry. This breakthrough discovery leads Mr. Valjean to establish an extremely profitable factory in the struggling village that he now calls home.

As his wealth and fame grow, happy villagers appoint him to be Mayor and treat him like a demi-god.

It’s in this portion of the book where we’re allowed a brief glimpse into Jean Valjean’s business leadership attributes and Hugo presents a man bent on doing what is right – at any cost.

I’ve briefly drawn out five leadership principles that I feel resonate in our world today – 150 years after Victor Hugo wrote them into Valjean’s character.

Leaders are Innovators (and vice-versa):

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”  

– Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO

Victor Hugo used innovation as his key building block to portray Jean Valjean’s rise from galley prisoner to business professional as credible, casting Jean Valjean’s financial fortune as a result of thinking differently and taking necessary risks to turn his breakthrough idea into a method for achieving substantial profits.

Yet Valjean’s innovative streak didn’t end with this invention. When his new business began to flourish, Jean Valjean chose to reinvest his wealth to create a separate factory workspace for female laborers so they ‘wouldn’t lose their modesty’ – an unheard of accommodation for any factory owner to make in the mid-18th century.

Innovation rests at the doorway of every successful business plan. As leaders, are we doing everything to encourage and reward innovation in our workplaces?

People before Profits:

“If you have a strong, people-focused, values-driven culture, it creates satisfied, engaged, motivated people who want to bring their best selves to work every day and want to do a great job and that boosts performance.”

— Michael Weinholtz, CEO of CHG Healthcare

I’ve run across countless organizations that give mere lip service to the notion of placing the needs of their employees before everything else. The harsh reality is that precious few companies actually take their employees well being into account with every major corporate decision made.

That’s not to say that those companies don’t exist. They do and you can find them with relative ease because they’re the companies everyone wants to work for.

In the case of Jean Valjean, we find that instead of using his newfound wealth to bulk up his personal bank account, he returned the lion’s share to his employees in an effort to lift them out of poverty.

“This very slight change … had rendered it possible, first to raise the wages of the laborer – a benefit to the region – secondly to improve the quality of the goods – an advantage for the consumer – and thirdly, to sell them at a lower price even while making three times the profit – a gain for the manufacturer.”

“The profits of (Jean Valjean) were so great that by the end of the second year he was able to build a large factory and … whoever was needy could go there and be sure of finding work and wages.”

Slowly, companies are starting to see the positive correlation between happiness at work and solid business performance. A study found in the 2009 New York Times bestseller The Carrot Principle shows that companies who choose to put their people first outperform their competition by a 3-1 margin.

Victor Hugo understood this simple principle more than 150 years ago – yet organizations continue to sweep this one under the carpet.


“It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.“  

— Alfred Adler, Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist, and founder of the school of individual psychology

Despite Jean Valjean’s open-door employment policy, he still required his workers be honest in their everyday dealings with each other. The book also points out that while honesty was a personality trait he had struggled with in his previous life, during this passage of time in the narrative he held himself accountable to be an honest man with unparalleled enthusiasm.

Do we set goals with those we manage and hold them accountable to be accomplished? Do we invite our employees to change their behaviors to accomplish culture change when we have no intention of doing the same? Do we encourage a ‘Do as I say – not as I do’ approach to leadership?

Social Responsibility:

“Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors … Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

– Albert Einstein

Jean Valjean amassed a fortune of 1.6 million French Francs through his hard work and innovation in the mid-19th century. This amount would easily be worth over a billion dollars by today’s standards.

We he chose to spend a cool million francs of his fortune – roughly two-thirds of his wealth – on upgrading the health care and educational capacities of the village he lived in.

He paid to have the local hospital expand its woefully inadequate amount of beds available to care for the sick and afflicted. He also paid upgrades to the local school and established two additional teachers at competitive salaries.

He saved the remaining six hundred thousand francs for himself – of which he continued to use to assist the poor and the needy with home he interacted with.

Our world is filled with examples of the power of wealth to corrupt. Victor Hugo chose to create a hero who understood the power of wealth to heal entire communities.


“If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.”

— Moliere [Jean Baptiste Poquelin]

While walking through the streets of the village one evening, Jean Valjean witnessed a crime against a helpless victim, the watched as this victim was wrongfully arrested as that crime’s perpetrator. At this point, Valjean could have avoided a host of challenges in his life if he would have simply chosen to not say a word and gone on his way.

Instead he chose to defend the wrongfully accused victim, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually brought uncertainty, fear and pain for the rest of his life.

A short while later, he is faced with another golden opportunity to assign his blame on another and live the remainder of his life in comfort. Yet, he again chooses the follow the honest route, allowing his nemesis to pick up his scent anew.

How often do we as leaders chose to do what is right, no matter the personal and professional cost? Do we allow others to take the fall for something we were responsible for? Are we the kind of leader who defends the morally wrong actions our employers choose to embark on?

Choosing to become a leader of integrity is not an easy path to follow; yet leaders of integrity are the ones employees will follow anywhere.

On the other hand, leaders who choose to lie, deceive and mislead their employees lose their ability to lead altogether.


One response to “Five Leadership Lessons from Jean Valjean

  1. Pingback: Five Leadership Lessons from Jean Valjean | Leadership, Influence and Selling with Impact |·

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