In January 2006, America will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin--the man who has been called "the first great American." Time has done little to lessen Americans' fascination with this incredible businessman, scientist, politician, diplomat, and Founding Father. Scores of books, including, most recently, Pulitzer Prize finalist The First American and Edmund Morgan's Benjamin Franklin, a New York Times best-seller, have been written about him.
Surprisingly little attention is paid in any of these writings to the one characteristic that enabled Franklin to succeed in every aspect of his life--his unique and unparalleled leadership skills. This is unfortunate because modern leaders have much to learn from Franklin.
Before looking at the unique components of his extraordinary leadership, let me briefly review some of his many accomplishments:
- As a businessman, Franklin built America's first media conglomerate by setting up printing and newspaper franchises throughout the American Colonies.
- As a citizen, he formed America's first public library, its first fire department, and its first nonsectarian university, the University of Pennsylvania.
- As a scientist, he discovered electricity--an achievement that made him world famous and helped drive the Industrial Revolution. He also produced the Franklin stove, invented bifocals, conceived of daylight savings time, and was the first person to chart the Gulf Stream.
- As an author, he wrote America's first best-seller--Poor Richard's Almanac, and his autobiography has been credited with influencing everything from the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.
- As a civil servant (postmaster general), he revolutionized the delivery of mail in America by establishing one-day service and home delivery.
- As a politician, Franklin had an active hand in creating the major documents of the Revolution--the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the alliance with France, and the peace treaty with England--and was the only Founding Father to sign all four.
- As a diplomat, he negotiated and secured America's strategic alliance with France during the Revolutionary War--an act that arguably helped secure the eventual victory.
Today, it is hard to imagine one person accomplishing so much. Indeed, given the pressures and complexities of modern life, it may be impossible to replicate such a resume. Still, a quick chronicle of the principles that provided the foundation of his leadership can help us to understand how one man could accomplish so much, and how we might employ those principles to our benefit today.
Ben Franklin had no formal education. Yet by age 11, he had taught himself English, French, and Italian. His curiosity transcended the languages and spanned all academic disciplines--a fact that was captured in the mix of books Franklin first purchased after establishing America's original public library. Nine of the books were on science, eight on history, and eight on politics. The diversity of topics ensured that not only were he and his fellow citizens well-read but also that they possessed the depth of knowledge necessary to approach the day's most pressing political, diplomatic, social, and economic issues from a well-rounded perspective.
Franklin, however, did not simply limit himself to book knowledge. He was the consummate student, always seeking out those who knew more than he did on a wide variety of topics--everything from poetry to natural history. His approach is best reflected in two quotes: "Not a tenth part of the wisdom was my own" and "More is to be learned with the ear than the tongue."
One of his principal methods for learning was to engage others in spirited debate. When he was still just a printer, he wrote, "Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought to equally have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."
The growing importance of globalism, coupled with the convergence of information and technology that is transforming society at an ever-faster pace, makes this continuous education even more vital today than it was in Franklin's time. Only those leaders who are well-rounded in the areas of science, politics, culture, and global affairs, and are open to new people and fresh ideas and vigorous in their approach, are going to have the foundation and the flexibility to thrive in this new environment.
At the age of 16, Franklin left his hometown of Boston for Philadelphia. Within a year he had established his own print shop, and after three years he had become one of Pennsylvania's most prominent printers. By the time he was just 26, he had established America's first franchise system of printing shops--with stores from Hartford to Charleston. He did it by doing his homework, finding good employees, establishing key relationships, working hard, and taking risks.
...when Truth and Error have fair play, the
former is always an overmatch for the latter.
The latter characteristic was arguably the most important to his success. He once opined, "he that loves money the most shall lose." The reason for this, Franklin said, was that "anxiety for the success of the game confounds." The person becomes too fearful and ends up performing defensively rather than seizing offensive opportunities.
Franklin often also used cooperative arrangements with his competitors to the mutual satisfaction of each party. For example, as a printer he once worked with a competitor to share the risk of printing an expensive book. Franklin handled the cost of the printing, while the other man covered the cost of the paper. Together, they split the remaining costs and divided the copies. To Franklin's way of thinking, a half loaf was a lot better than no loaf.
He also used his free time and other outside activities constructively to generate an almost endless source of entrepreneurial opportunities. He was the consummate networker. Early in life, he formed an organization called the Junto--a group of tradesmen and artisans who were intent on self-improvement. In many ways, Franklin could be called the first Rotarian.
When still a young man, Franklin read Plutarch's Lives--a book that is based on the premise that "individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better." Franklin absorbed the message and it permeated every aspect of his life.
The philosophy is best reflected in his decision, at the age of 42, to turn over his very successful printing business in order to concentrate on science. As he wrote his mother of the decision, he said, "I would rather have it said ‘He lived usefully,' than ‘He died rich'." And for the second half of his life, he did precisely that, focusing on improving the world at large rather than his own finances.
Even in the field of science, his view was focused on putting his work to "useful" ends. Franklin believed that knowledge--especially science--should first be pursued for pure fascination but then for practical effect. His life is a testament to this belief. For instance, shortly after discovering electricity, Franklin pondered of what practical use it could be. After giving it some thought, he figured it was best to leave that question for others. Upon further reflection, however, he created the lightning rod--a device that immediately reduced the number of homes burned to the ground by lightning strikes. But he didn't stop there. From his creation of bifocal glasses to daylight savings time, Franklin was constantly converting his scientific curiosities to practical effect.
Moreover, when it came to organizing cooperative endeavors and public-spirited projects to benefit the "common-good," American history can offer no one more accomplished. Franklin established schools to teach the children of the middle class, he set up voluntary associations to create pensions for seamen, and organized welfare programs for the widows and the elderly. He also created the first public library and a fire insurance association. He did all these things because he understood that for the American experiment in democracy to work, citizens had to assume some responsibility for their community.
In this era, when so many businesspeople perceive that their sole responsibility is to their shareholders, Franklin's life demonstrates that there is still time to engage in socially useful activities.
Franklin once wrote, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine." He felt it was shortsighted to view business activities as something separate and distinct from the community in which those businesses and their employees work and live.
It was this type of thinking that started him on the path to becoming a revolutionary. In 1753, while still a businessman, he urged the 13 Colonies to form a closer union among themselves in order to ask for full rights as subjects of the British Crown. At the time, he was not motivated by nationalistic feelings; rather he saw the union as beneficial to both American commercial interests and, ironically, the British Empire itself.
Walter Isaacson, in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, notes, "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies." His point was that the strength of a country--or, I would argue, an organization--is not just derived from singleness of purpose. It is derived from the recognition that the sum is greater than the parts and that compromise is often a necessary ingredient in achieving success.
He that loves money the most shall lose.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the delegates of the large and small states were split over the notion of proportional representation. It was Franklin who helped pass what became known as the "Connecticut Compromise" (it accommodated the more populous states by mandating that the seats of the House of Representatives be determined according to population, while protecting the smaller states by giving each two senators). He did so with a simple analogy that broke the tension. "When a broad table is made and the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both and makes a good point," Franklin said. "In like manner here, both sides must part with some of their demands." The compromise was accepted and the convention--and the young nation--were held together. Franklin also once said that sometimes "one is obliged to give up some smaller points in order to obtain greater."
The subtle, behind-the-scenes style of the compromise reflects another hallmark of his leadership: his humility. From his anonymous authorship of Poor Richard's Almanac and his quiet work in negotiating an alliance with France to his little efforts in crafting the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (Franklin was responsible for suggesting the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" to Thomas Jefferson), Ben Franklin was always willing to give others credit in order to achieve success.
Even after his fame as a scientist, writer, and diplomat became widespread; Franklin repeatedly refused to trade in on it. In fact, Franklin recognized that often the best way to get someone to accept an idea was to make them believe it was their idea. To this end, he often employed the Socratic method. He never belittled or degraded an opponent's views; rather he would ask questions until they came around to seeing issues from his point of view.
As Jim Collins explains in Good to Great, many of today's best-performing CEOs are virtual unknowns outside their own businesses and have learned that a quiet, low-key approach is often an integral ingredient for fostering long-term success. Ben Franklin's life is a powerful reminder of this truth.
After his success as a businessman, scientist, and politician, Franklin could have been forgiven if he had retired in peace. Luckily for America, he didn't. He answered his nation's call and accepted the ambassadorship to France. In this position, he became known as the greatest American diplomat of all times. That is a fair characterization, because Franklin secured the key alliance with France during the Revolutionary War. It was an act just as important as any battlefield victory because it altered the balance of power between France and Great Britain in a way that was beneficial to the United States.
To pour forth benefits for the
common good is divine.
Franklin was such a successful diplomat because he understood that success depended in equal parts on hardheaded strategic factors and on softer forms of idealism. In the case of France, Franklin asked for the country's support not simply on the grounds that an alliance would weaken its rival, Great Britain, but he appealed to its intelligentsia's enlightened view of self-government. Franklin argued that the notion of America was not just a victory for his new country; it was a victory for mankind.
Franklin was also a master at determining what was essential for success in negotiations and what was merely advisable. He never confused the two. As a result, he always achieved the former while often being able to secure a fair number of the latter. For instance, after the Revolutionary War, Franklin insisted Great Britain accept America's independence as a precondition for talks. In this manner, he secured the most important goal before negotiations even officially began.
In 1766, at the age of 60, Ben Franklin was one of Britain's staunchest supporters. He became a revolutionary only after concluding that the political leaders in Great Britain were not only unwilling to compromise but were actually inimical to the notion of allowing the American Colonies the opportunity to become equal partners in the British Commonwealth.
By keeping an open mind, Franklin left himself open to see the changing political climate--and to seize new opportunities--well before most of his countrymen. And even though he had many friends in high places in the British Empire, including his own son, Franklin refused to be beholden to the status quo.
Similarly, near the end of his life, Franklin, who had once owned slaves, accepted the presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In so doing, he became one of America's first and most vocal advocates of abolition. Franklin once said: "Declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution never to change, neither enlighten nor convince us." He held himself to that standard as well as his countrymen. It is a principle that has--and continues to--serve this country well.
It has been said that the greatest disease of modern life is short-term thinking. From business leaders incapable of looking beyond their next quarterly statement to political leaders seemingly unaware of a host of growing societal problems, today's leaders need to do a better job of designing and shaping their actions for sustainable long-term growth. Consider what Franklin achieved with long-term thinking.
Late in life, Franklin was elected president of Pennsylvania--the precursor to today's governorship. Rather than accept the $1,000 salary, he directed that the money be split equally between the cities of Philadelphia and Boston and used to finance low-interest loans to help tradesmen receive an education. He noted that in 100 years (after the loans were repaid) the fund would grow to approximately $100,000. He then directed that half the proceeds be used to build public projects and the other half continue to be used as loans. At the end of 200 years he figured the two sums would reach $4 million. (In both instances, Franklin's projections were remarkably accurate.) At that point, he directed, the funds should be disbursed for educational projects. In Philadelphia, the funds were used to build a science museum and the Franklin Institute (a technology training school), and in Boston they were used to construct the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. All three institutions continue to serve a growing population of students to this day!
Ben Franklin's remarkable vision serves as a wonderful example of the power of long-term thinking.
Ben Franklin was a paradox. He fiercely believed in the power of the individual, but he was a relentless advocate for acting on behalf of the community. He believed in competition, but he never hesitated to cooperate with competitors when it was in his interest. He could be the most partisan of politicians--and the most accommodating of diplomats. Throughout his life Franklin saw the world and its surroundings not in stark black-and-white contrast but rather in varying shades of gray--and acted accordingly.
More important, Franklin believed that as a participant in local and global affairs he could influence his world. And through his actions, he did. As Franklin said later in life, he viewed America as a place where "people do not enquire of a stranger, What is he? But, What can he do?" Perhaps more than any other Founding Father, it was Ben Franklin who gave us this uniquely American view of human potential. By his words and his deeds, Franklin demonstrated that leaders, through equal combinations of education, risk-taking, open-mindedness, and vision, can create a better future. It is a lesson worth recalling this year as we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of "the first great American."
Copyright © 2005 by Jack Uldrich. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader
, a publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.
Uldrich, Jack. "Benjamin Franklin's Extraordinary Leadership" Leader to Leader. 38 (Fall 2005): 31-36.
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