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BY Joel Junker

4 Leadership Tips from Ben Franklin

By coincidence this July 4th Weekend, I finished reading “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Isaacson. While I did not intend to read and complete the book within days of celebrating our nation’s independence, the coincidence is providing me with time to reflect on how our Founding Fathers (especially Franklin) lived their lives and led us to our independence. They provide us valuable lessons in how we can conduct ourselves to become better people and leaders. (Franklin, being human, did have some significant faults to include flirting with women of all ages while married and staying away from his wife and family beyond what was necessary, not even returning home to his dying wife.)  Here are 4 ideas I am taking away from the book and incorporating into my life and business career.

  1. To accomplish great feats and reach tough goals, you do not have to like everything about your colleagues but you do have to share the same values.  I did not realize how much John Adams and Benjamin Franklin did not care for each other.  They had different styles, with Adams brash and saying what’s on his mind, and Franklin more diplomatic, dining and playing chess before entering into negotiations with the French and British. Adams wanted to make things happen quickly, Franklin waited for the right opportunity. Both styles work but are opposite of one another. They balanced one another, but they also grated on each other. The shared goal and value of independence for the United States of American and everything for which it stood kept them working with one another despite their differences.  Our founding fathers did not agree on everything, and they had big egos! They argued, they lambasted each other in the press, but they could put it all aside to achieve their and now OUR independence!
  2. Benjamin Franklin was the master of “It is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,” (Grace Murray Hopper).When the British came to the table to negotiate peace, the deal was that it would be done with United States and France simultaneously. No deal was to move forward without a treaty signed for the French and United States at the same time. Franklin saw an opportunity for a better treaty for the United States if he did it independently. He did that and then went to the French to tell them. The French were ticked off! Get this, Franklin wrote them a letter complimenting them, said he was sorry, and the U.S. would be a better partner from here on out.  Franklin knew exactly what he was doing, took action and then would say, “I am sorry.  Forgive us.  We are a new country figuring all this out.” The French bought it, and the rest is history.
  1. Willingness to listen and change opinion to get to the best solution possible. You have likely been in a family argument or a group meeting where another person is so fixated on his or her opinion that he or she is not willing to truly listen. This means listening with the intent of learning and a willingness to seeing a different perspective, uncovering your own biases and changing your own opinion. Or, maybe even you have been at fault before. As our Founding Fathers worked with another for months to hammer out a constitution, representatives from big and little colonies, now states, dug in with their opinion and protected their own interests. The debate was heated, and the eldest member of the convention, Benjamin Franklin jumped into the fray to calm the situation, “Declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution never change it, neither enlighten nor convince us. Positiveness and warmth on one side, naturally beget their like on the other.” Immediately after he gave a really long speech about listening and changing opinions, two representatives proposed the Connecticut Compromise which is the foundation of our bicameral government, House of Representatives and Senate. We could be a bunch of individual countries instead of 50 United States today if the delegates did not heed his advice to respect the other, truly listen, recognize you have biases and prejudices, and be willing to change opinion.
  2. When you make a big decision and present it to the team, customers or public, no matter what happened behind closed doors, present a unified and 100% leadership backed strategy/proposal/shift (whatever you want to call it.) A lot of frustration, arguments and hurt feelings took place at the convention to hammer out our Constitution. When it finally became apparent the majority would vote for the Constitution, Franklin was adamant that everyone attending the convention sign it. He did not want to show the public, and most importantly Great Britain or any other country, that they were anything but “all in.” Once your organization makes a decision, even if you are in the minority, get behind it. No complaining or whining to the public, subordinates or customers. If you have a problem, go back in private with those who can do something about it.

I close with my favorite quote about how blessed I am to live in this country and be free, “Freedom is not free.” Korean War Memorial, Washington, D.C.


Happy Independence Day!

Joel Junker