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Leadership Lessons Politicians Can Learn from Ben Franklin
By | 09/28/2011 12:00PM | SOLUTIONS

The Wisdom and Example of Benjamin Franklin Offers Several Timeless Leadership Lessons for Political Leaders Today


The old story told is that whenever visitors went over to see Benjamin Franklin at his estate they would need to open a large gate so that their horse and carriage could pass through on the way up to his house. Pushing this hefty contraption open always proved to be a bit of an affair requiring no small effort. Often exasperated, this prompted more than a few of his guests to offer a fix. “I can send someone over to mend that dreadful gate of yours, if you like?” With a wry smile and to the surprise of his guests, Franklin would […] reply: “Why would I do that? Then I would have to pump my own water.”

This story captures a glimpse of the inventiveness and the pragmatism for which Benjamin Franklin was renowned. Perhaps, it also offers a hint into Franklin’s keen understanding of human nature and his considerable skill as a diplomat.

There are, of course, a number of characteristics that conspired to make Ben Franklin one of the leading political figures of his day and one of the truly great leaders in America’s historical record. Yet, in researching the life and leadership of Ben Franklin, the thing that stood out most for me is just how relevant and applicable the principles and lessons of his life are to political leaders today. This post summarizes some key lessons that, I believe, stand out as being particularly useful given the current climate in our country’s capital.

As a preface, there is one idea that I want to share which grounds the thinking behind this post: the importance of heroes and exemplars. Part of wisdom is found in the capacity to learn from the successes (and the failures) of others. As Otto von Bismarck said “Fools say they learn by experience. I prefer to learn from other’s experience.”1

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin himself writes this: “Having emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro’ Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducting Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated.”2 Apparently, learning from others was an important principle to Franklin, as he also included the following aphorisms in his widely celebrated Poor Richard’s Almanac: “Who is wise? He that learns from everyone,” and “Experience keeps a dear school, yet fools will learn in no other.”3

In my own view, as we stand in the midst of a crisis in political leadership, there has scarcely been a better time to look to the example of America’s heroes and legends. Clearly, the actions of politicians in Washington today—the deep divisions, the bitter partisan attacks, the chicanery, the rumors, the lies—are a far cry from the great potential of our people. We know this because of the example of people like Benjamin Franklin who, for his part, was looked upon “as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in today’s world.”4

In the midst of tumultuous times, we can always look to the lives of those of our predecessors whose reputations and examples have withstood the great test of time. Throughout our history, despite the mood of the nation or the particular crisis of the day, these are the leaders who we continue to hold up as heroes, the leaders who uplift and inspire us, and the leaders who urge us to press on—sometimes, simply, by invoking their names.5

Pages: 1 2 3




“We must all hang together,
or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
-Benjamin Franklin


Notes and Bibliography
  1. Wilkinson, Paul (2006). Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response (Cass Series on Political Violence). New York: Routledge. Pg. 129.
  2. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings. Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 3.
  3. Franklin, Benjamin ([1750], 1914). Poor Richard’s Almanack. Waterloo, Iowa: The U.S.C. Publishing Co. Pgs. 21 (#137), 61 (#651).
  4. Isaacson, Walter (2003). “Citizen Ben’s Great Virtues.” Special Report. TIME Magazine. June 29, 2003.
  5. A note about role models and the choice of Benjamin Franklin: A.) Obviously, we are not seeking gods here. There will never be a perfect man or a perfect woman. And there is little, if any, value in tearing our heroes down in order to feel better about ourselves. The wisdom comes in our familiarity with them and in our understanding of the principles that guided their lives and how they applied these principles to the challenges they faced. No matter how radically things have changed, there is far more in life and about being human that remains the same. B.) Though I think it is helpful to rediscover our less “mainstream” leaders as role models and it is always worthwhile to draw on a diverse group, I want to focus on Benjamin Franklin in this post because there is one quality that really stands out in my mind that he possessed. It is a quality which our political leaders in Washington are sorely lacking today. And it is a quality that I think is absolutely essential to our Republic if we are to ensure it’s survival. That quality is civility. I do not mean to exaggerate the danger that our Republic is in today. I’ll leave it to Benjamin Franklin to emphasize the fragility of America. When asked by an inquisitive woman, at the end of a long convention, “So, Mr. Franklin, what is it that you have given us?” Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
  6. Heath, David (2002). “Benjamin Franklin: An Extraordinary Life, An Electric Mind.” Saint Paul, Minnesota: Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.
  7. Locke, Edwin A. et al (1981). “Goal Setting and Task Performance: 1969-1980.” Psychological Bulletin, Volume 90, Number 1. Pgs. 125-152.
  8. Levinson, Jay Conrad & Telford, Terry (2008). Guerrilla Marketing: Breakthrough Strategies: Triple Your Sales and Quadruple Your Business In 90 Days With Joint Venture Partnerships. Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing. Pg. 30. NOTE: Although it is cited in a number of self-help books, I have seen questions raised about the authenticity of this study. Nonetheless, social science research overwhelmingly supports the basic principles of goal-setting.
  9. Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Chapter Twenty-Two: “Self-Regulation.” New York: Oxford University Press. Pgs. 499-516.
  10. Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Chapter Twenty-Two: “Self-Regulation.” New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 501.
  11. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings. Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 93.
  12. Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Chapter Twenty-Two: “Self-Regulation.” New York: Oxford University Press. Pgs. 499.
  13. Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Chapter Twenty-Two: “Self-Regulation.” New York: Oxford University Press. Pgs. 499.
  14. Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Chapter Twenty-Two: “Self-Regulation.” New York: Oxford University Press. Pgs. 499.
  15. Fahmy, Sam (2010). “Self-Control is Contagious, Study Finds.” UGA Office of Public Affairs. January 13, 2010. See also: Van Dellen, Michelle R. and Hoyle, Rick H. (2009). “Regulatory Accessibility and Social Influences on State Self-Control.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Volume 36, Number 2. Pgs. 251-263.
  16. Van Dellen, Michelle R. and Hoyle, Rick H. (2009). “Regulatory Accessibility and Social Influences on State Self-Control.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Volume 36, Number 2. Pgs. 251-263.
  17. Fahmy, Sam (2010). “Self-Control is Contagious, Study Finds.” UGA Office of Public Affairs. January 13, 2010. See also: Van Dellen, Michelle R. and Hoyle, Rick H. (2009). “Regulatory Accessibility and Social Influences on State Self-Control.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Volume 36, Number 2. Pgs. 251-263.
  18. Franklin, Benjamin ([1750], 1914). Poor Richard’s Almanack. Waterloo, Iowa: The U.S.C. Publishing Co. Pgs. 21 (#137), 61 (#651).
  19. Bruns, Roger (2006). Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Pgs. 41-42.
  20. Oates, Stephen B. (1982). Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Pgs. 89-90.
  21. Bruns, Roger (2006). Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Pg. 42.
  22. Oates, Stephen B. (1982). Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Pgs. 89-90.
  23. Oates, Stephen B. (1982). Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Pgs. 89-90.
  24. Bruns, Roger (2006). Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Pg. 42.
  25. Bennett, William J. (2001). Virtues of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Pg. viii.
  26. Bennett, William J. (2001). Virtues of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Pg. viii.
  27. NOTE: Indeed, this leadership principle is not only congruent with all of the major world religions, but it bares an uncanny resemblance to the central principle of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy: the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e. “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”). In other words, do only what you would have everyone do. If you could not or would not sign on to the law that everyone will now do what you are about to do, then you should not do it yourself. Think about lying, littering, stealing or murder. Imagine if everyone in the world did any one of those things. Would that be acceptable to you (or even possible)? If not, then you should never do those things yourself.
  28. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 100.
  29. Franklin, Benjamin (1902). The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Bigelow, John (ed.). Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company. Pg. 600. (Google Books).
  30. Franklin, Benjamin (1850). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Sparks, Jared (ed.) London: Henry G. Bohn. Pg. 75.
  31. NOTE: In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin writes: “I never was without some religious Principles; I never doubted, for instance, the Existence of the Deity, that he made the World, & govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that our Souls are immortal; and that all Crime will be punished & Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteem’d the Essentials of every Religion, and being to be found in all the Religions we had in our Country I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix’d with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another.” Source: Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 89, 102.
  32. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pgs. 90-91.
  33. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 91.
  34. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 91.
  35. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pgs. 89-90.
  36. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 90.
  37. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pgs. 89-90.
  38. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 99.
  39. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 99.
  40. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 101.
  41. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pgs. 100-101.
  42. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 102.
  43. Franklin, Benjamin ([1771], 1986). Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings (Penguin Classics). Silverman, Kenneth (ed.). New York: Penguin Books. Pg. 90.
  44. Thompson, Dennis (1995). Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. Pg. 1.

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons
of history is the most important of all the
lessons that history has to offer.”
–Aldous Huxley

 




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