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Benjamin Franklin on Leadership 101

I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s terrific biography of Benjamin Franklin.  Having read his superb biography of Albert Einstein a couple of months ago, I was anxious to see how he applied his craft to other great people in history.  I’m not disappointed (although I like the Einstein biography a bit more).

In the book, Isaacson refers to Franklin’s autobiography frequently.  So, I decided to check it out as well (full text available online here).  It offers an incredible peak into the ideas and actions of one of the most thoughtful and introspective thinkers in history.  Franklin was always working to improve himself and, as such, used his amazing powers of observation to study social interaction.  In addition to describing these in several of his other writings, he detailed many of them in his autobiography.

Outwardly, he was interested in understanding how people think and react, but inwardly, one gets a sense that he had a strong desire to learn how to lead and, perhaps, even to manipulate people.

Of course, a fundamental arrow in every leader’s quiver is the ability to listen and be listened to.  Further, by understanding another’s position, to be able to then convince them to come around to your way of thinking.  Even better if you can get them to represent your thinking as if it was theirs from the very beginning.  This is one of the fundamentals of strong leadership.

Being the overbearing sort, Franklin thought long and hard about this challenge and how he needed to change to receive a “readier reception and less contradiction” to his opinions.  That is, how to be more humble and less obviously proud.  Here were his conclusions (the numbers in the square brackets are mine so that I can more easily refer to the text in the rest of this post).

My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it[1]. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own [2]. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present [3]. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc [4]. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right [5].”

– Benjamin Franklin from his autobiography

Here’s what I take from this excerpt from his autobiography (the numbers in the list below refer to the corresponding numbers in brackets in the text):

  1. “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”  Meaning, that it’s great if you are actually humble, but if you’re not, it’s important that you at least act this way.
  2. “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own.”  This is, perhaps, the most important point for a leader during brainstorming or in a group discussion – let all ideas fly; don’t shoot them down if you disagree (there’s plenty of time for that later); and don’t place your own ideas over those of others.  Doing so will end any real contribution from others and will eventually prevent others from even wanting to contribute at all.
  3. “I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present.”  A follow-up from point 2.  Select your words wisely, they send subtle messages about whether you are really open to the opinions of others.
  4. “I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc.”  Steer the conversation.  Rather than putting up a stop sign, use directional signals to move the conversation in a direction that you want it to go.
  5. “The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.”  By doing all the above things, eschewing open pride and showing some humility, I got what I wanted and made everyone feel good about giving it to me.

Of course, what Franklin learned and subsequently wrote about is how to get what one wants through the basic understanding and manipulation of human nature.  If people feel good about themselves when interacting with you, they’ll feel good about the ideas and direction that come out of such an interaction.

Yeah, it sounds a bit mercenary, but it’s the basic platform for all successful leaders.  It worked 250 years ago and it works exactly the same now.  Try it.  You’ll see.

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 January 16th, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 6 Comments

6 Responses to Benjamin Franklin on Leadership 101

  1. Yes it’s a great biography. I run a Junto in the Bay Area modeled on Franklin:

    http://svjunto.wikispaces.com

  2. Yes it’s a great biography. I run a Junto in the Bay Area modeled on Franklin:

    http://svjunto.wikispaces.com

  3. Ben,

    I had read about your Si Valley Junto before, but I have to say that I didn’t appreciate it as much until I read the autobiography. It’s just such a fundamentally cool concept, I’m envious of the participates being 3,000 miles away. Most of these things break down into networking events. It sounds like you guys really treat it as Franklin originally intended – a lifelong learning thing. I’d love to sit in some time when I’m out there.

  4. Ben,

    I had read about your Si Valley Junto before, but I have to say that I didn’t appreciate it as much until I read the autobiography. It’s just such a fundamentally cool concept, I’m envious of the participates being 3,000 miles away. Most of these things break down into networking events. It sounds like you guys really treat it as Franklin originally intended – a lifelong learning thing. I’d love to sit in some time when I’m out there.

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