Having worked through what felt like a fairly comprehensive list of ways ineffective leadership and poor communication kill profitability in far too many businesses over the last several months, let’s change gears a bit and revisit an idea I introduced in this series in early 2020 - one I believe matters just as much today as it did then… If you have access to our Leading At The Next Level program, I’ll challenge you to search for the lesson called Leadership of Our Founders: George Washington where I highlighted several of the leadership characteristics that led to Washington not only heading up the Continental Army but also to him serving as the first President of what I believe is still the greatest nation on the planet! My intent in that lesson was to contrast those leadership qualities to what we see from far too many of our public figures - in poliTICKS, sports, and just about every other aspect of society - and to challenge anyone working through that lesson to take a few pages from George’s playbook and implement them in their own respective spheres of influence. Since writing about it here and putting all that together as a full lesson, I’ve been able to share segments of it with all kinds of groups to emphasize the importance of effective leadership and call attention to some of our amazing history.
All that said, I’ve never been under the illusion that Washington was perfect. What he did though, as well as any leader I’ve ever read about, was surround himself with other effective leaders; leaders who often opposed some of his views but leaders who also brought complementary strengths to the table. With that in mind, let's take a trip back in time to study what some of our other Founding Fathers did to help create and lead a new nation. Two that we’ll be digging into followed in Washington’s footsteps as president and have their fingerprints all over nearby (Virginia) universities. First though, we’ll be looking at the one who first announced our true form of government - something I think should be talked about far more frequently than it is!
Author, Inventor, and Influencer
While many think of him with quotes like “a penny saved is a penny earned” or “early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” I’m quite fond of the response he gave Elizabeth Willing Powel when she asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Although it doesn’t seem to resonate with most people these days, Benjamin Franklin’s reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it!”
Before we dive into some specific things Franklin did to help build the firm foundation that our nation has stood on for nearly two and half centuries, I need to point you to season 7, episode 3 of NCIS where Agent DiNozzo chides the investigator from the Securities and Exchange Commission named “Ben Franklin” by first asking if that really was his name then calling attention to his nice bifocals and referencing a few of the more popular quotes I opened with… SEC investigator Ben sharply replied, “Yes that’s my name, and I’ve heard every imaginable joke. So spare me.” If you’re an NCIS fan, you know DiNozzo most certainly did not spare him!
I remember bits and pieces about Franklin from history classes in school, although I doubt my memories are anywhere close to everything my teachers covered back then. I recall illustrations showing him flying a kite during a thunderstorm, emphasizing his study of the electricity most of us now take for granted. I remember a number of written works he either published himself or made significant contributions to; Poor Richard’s Almanac, the Articles of Confederation, and the Declaration of Independence to name just a few. And I also remember things like insurance, organized fire fighting, the bifocals DiNozzo joked about, and the “Franklin” stove being credited to him.
One thing I don’t recall hearing much about was him holding positions with significant power or authority. As I dug through a lengthy wikipedia page, I did see roles like “Postmaster”, “Ambassador”, and even “president of Pennsylvania” but nothing that seems to rival the roles Washington held. In fact, I only see brief mentions of his “scant military training” and role in the French and Indian War.
Regardless of title or position, though, by the time of the American Revolution, Franklin had invested seven decades into serving the communities he was part of as well as the Colonies as a whole and building influence with his peers. That influence, even more than any formal title, impacted the other 55 signers of the Declaration, his fellow members of the Constitutional Convention, and each of us who have benefited in any way by these United States of America since. With all that in mind, let’s consider some of Franklin’s strengths…
Leadership Earned by "The First American"
As I mentioned before, Benjamin Franklin’s voice as a Founding Father didn’t carry such significant weight because of any particular position he held, although he did make a significant impact in several different roles. His influence was largely something he earned throughout the course of his life.
As I looked for specific articles detailing his leadership strengths and characteristics, I found an excellent video of a talk called Benjamin Franklin: Leader Extraordinaire that was given by Gleaves Whitney at Grand Valley State University in September 2011. While I’ll touch on a few things he covered, I really believe you’d get value from watching the entire thing!
Whitney emphasized Franklin’s humble beginnings and how the combination of ambition and discipline served as a foundation for so much of the success he achieved in business (retiring in his early 40s), as an inventor and writer, and as one of the most notable proponents of the freedoms we enjoy today in his later years. Not only did Ben have a strong work ethic as a teen working for a printer, he constantly pushed himself to outperform those around him - both in the physical tasks required in the position but also with how he used his time when he wasn’t working. Despite only having two years of formal schooling, Franklin’s drive and curiosity led to him being one of the most prominent thinkers of the time. Whitney even shared a story of how he learned to swim by studying a French book on the subject - when he couldn’t speak or read French!
That same drive, curiosity, and work ethic resulted in him building significant wealth relatively early in life. As Postmaster, he built a system that was so efficient and profitable that he essentially controlled the market for printing and delivering mail on behalf of the government throughout the colonies. (We sure could use someone like that in the USPS today, huh!) Interestingly enough, Franklin didn’t view his wealth as a way of accumulating more power but for how he could benefit those around him. In fact, he refused to receive payment of any kind for several of his inventions to ensure the general public would have access to things like the lightning rod that’s still helping to prevent loss of lives and homes more than 200 years later.
While Franklin’s drive, work ethic, ambition, imagination, and self-discipline all contributed to the influence he earned throughout his life, he certainly wasn’t infallible. Truth be told, one of his mistakes led to him being referred to as “The First American” so let’s look at how intent he was to learn from things he didn’t get right on the first attempt.
With all the characteristics that worked in Benjamin Franklin’s favor to earn influence ( and the leadership that comes with that earned influence), he certainly wasn’t perfect; no one is - not even you or me! In his presentation at Grand Valley State University, Whitney mentioned Franklin’s limited opportunity to pursue a formal education - just two years in an actual school setting - and he also suggested that Ben was more than a little bit promiscuous during his time in England in his early 20s. Even later in life, specifically while representing the then British Colonies back in England after he retired from business, Franklin made some poor decisions based on the limited information he had access to.
While I’m certainly not under the illusion that these three examples were his only weaknesses, I’m calling your attention to them specifically so we can learn from what he did to offset and overcome each. Even today, it’s not uncommon to see our peers fall into a downward spiral after stumbling over any one of those things!
Because he wasn’t from a wealthy family, Franklin worked for a printer as a teenager rather than pursuing academics. But that definitely didn’t stop him from learning. If anything, it served to push him to use any available time he had to study on his own. During his work day, he was said to eat quickly then separate himself from his coworkers so he could read. That curiosity not only helped create a foundation for the inventions he would come up with later, it helped him start and run numerous successful businesses - yielding the wealth that allowed him to retire in his early 40s and put so much time into writing and those many inventions!
It’s said that on the ship back from England, while still in his early 20s, Franklin was already aware of the gaps in his character that led to the promiscuity Whitney mentioned. It was during that trip that he laid out the thirteen character traits that he intended to develop. And just as he read avidly to enhance his education, there were a number of ways he worked to develop each of those traits in his character - not the least of which was his intentional association with men who exemplified those characters!
With regards to making poor decisions based on the information he had, I’d guess we can all relate - and we have so much more access to any information we could ever need! How he moved forward after those decisions, and how he handled himself when being chastised for them, is what I believe really set him apart from the masses, then and still today. While serving in England as an ambassador for the Colonies in the early 1770s, some royalty bigshot called him on the proverbial carpet for one of his decisions. Rather than rebutting the Lord Farquad-type character, he took the chiding quietly. While many, myself included, would likely have been ready to fight, Franklin remained calm, but the scenario proved to be the turning point in his loyalty to the British Crown and what resulted in him being referred to as “The First American.” That same calmness in times of strife and uncertainty, made a significant impact in establishing our great nation through several of his addresses during the Constitutional Convention. Not the least of which coming about a month into the convention when many participants were at odds and on the verge of going their separate ways:
“I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of his truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [H]is notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without [H]is aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without [H]is concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.”
Franklin’s awareness of his own limitations, along with his determination to improve them and his willingness to align himself with others who could supplement them made a lasting impact that you and I still benefit from today! With that in mind, we’ll pick up next time with a look at someone he wrote a critical document with - who just happened to live not so far from where I do now…