243 years ago, the United States was in it’s very beginning stages. But, the creation of the United States of America was far from a sure thing, never mind surviving and then thriving to become one of the foremost nations on the planet. In June of 1776, the Americans were at war with their mother country, Great Britain, the most powerful empire in the world, a country with a population five times larger and arguably the best army and best navy in the world. The Americans opposed the British with a motley crew of an army, a tiny navy, and severe conflicts amongst themselves about what they should do. Many Americans wanted a reconciliation with England. Others wanted an independent nation — even though no colonies had ever successfully broken free from their parent nations.
So, given that times were tough and that results were far from a sure thing, just what lessons do the Founding Fathers have for us in leading organizations to success?
Be courageous. No matter how difficult the times are, if you believe in something, go for it. Do whatever you have to do. The Founding Fathers believed Americans needed their own country. They knew it was unprecedented; they knew their opponent was much stronger than they; they understood the military, financial, and diplomatic difficulties of what they were undertaking. They did it anyway. Every single man who signed the Declaration of Independence believed that he was signing his own death warrant, but each man signed anyway. No matter what difficulties your organization faces, if you believe in what you’re doing, stick to it. If you don’t believe in your path enough to stick to it – find another path.
Be inventive. Okay, you’re unlikely to be as creative as Ben Franklin, who invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and a carriage odometer. He formed both the first public lending library in America and the first fire department in Pennsylvania. But don’t be afraid to do new things — and if you’re not naturally inventive, hire people who are.
Learn on the job. George Washington has often been put down as a plodding military leader, who managed to luck out by not making any truly horrendous mistakes. In reality, he was a good student, who learned relatively quickly under stupendous pressure. He realized that his troops were much more mobile than their British opponents and used that. And he was willing to be courageous and inventive — his surprise attack on Trenton at Christmas 1776 was a turning point of the war. If you don’t have the resources to overpower your competition, you’ll have to out-think them. And, as with inventiveness, if you’re not smart enough to do this, hire people who are.
Be a team. The Founding Fathers led America to an almost-impossible victory because they were an amazing team. Washington possessed such rare leadership qualities that he could keep enough of the army together to survive the winter at Valley Forge and constant retreats before a stronger foe. Thomas Jefferson had the intellect and writing skills that would create the Declaration of Independence. John Adams had the political skills necessary to shepherd the Declaration through the Continental Congress, secure financing for the war from the Dutch, and then negotiate a peace treaty with the British. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay would play midwives to the Constitution — still the most amazing writing on the structure of government in the history of mankind. Hamilton would later largely create the U.S. economy that — for all its current woes — is wondrous in its longevity, stability, and comfort for most Americans.
No one of these men could have done it all by himself. As a team, it’s probably the most formidable collection of brainpower and talent ever assembled. As a leader, you don’t have to do it all. And if you build the right team, they’ll do the best job possible.