- Historic Sites
Mr. Franklin’s Leadership Maxims
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
At the first meeting of my first class in business school, our instructor divided the class into groups and gave each group a project. “Most of you are going to spend the rest of your lives trying to get things done in or through groups,” he told us, “so you might as well start now.”
A couple of miles from my classroom, and almost two hundred years earlier, a convention of fifty-five men had spent an arduous summer working on one of the most formidable group projects in history—the drafting of the Constitution of the United States.
There were many gifted men among those gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. Yet it is unlikely that any of them knew as much about getting things done in and through groups as an ailing, eighty-one-year-old retired businessman who attended the convention as a representative of Pennsylvania.
Aside from a speech that another delegate read for him on the last day of the convention—a speech justly celebrated as one of the finest ever made by any American—Benjamin Franklin did not play a large role in the convention. We may hear that speech a hundred times in 1987, yet we will not appreciate it fully unless we consider it in the light of Franklin’s earlier career as a businessman who devoted much of his leisure time to the promotion of public projects.
In 1727, Franklin tells us in the autobiography published after his death, he “form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintance into a Club for mutual Improvement, which we call’d the Junto.” Like Franklin, the other members of the club were tradesmen, sometimes called Leather Aprons, and the Junto was sometimes called the Leather-Apron Club.
The Junto was an early example of the activity today called “networking”—the diligent cultivation and exploitation of business connections. It served, Franklin’s biographer Carl Van Doren tells us, as Franklin’s “benevolent lobby for the benefit of Philadelphia, and now and then for the advantage of Benjamin Franklin.”
In 1731 Franklin completed what we might regard as his first major group project—the establishment of a public subscription library in Philadelphia. The young printer drafted a proposal and, “by the help of my Friends in the Junto, procur’d Fifty Subscribers.…”
For anyone interested in getting things done in groups, I can think of nothing that deserves more careful attention than the section of the autobiography in which Franklin discusses how he overcame the resistance he encountered when he tried to establish the subscription library. That resistance, he tells us, “made me soon feel the Impropriety of presenting one’s self as the Proposer of any useful Project that might be suppos’d to raise one’s Reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s Neighbours, when one has need of their Assistance to accomplish that Project. I therefore put my self as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends , who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such Occasions.…”
An extraordinary number of such occasions followed. After the library (1731), Franklin founded or helped to found Philadelphia’s city watch (1735–52), Philadelphia’s first fire company (1736), Philadelphia’s first college (1749), Philadelphia’s first hospital (1751), and Philadelphia’s first fire insurance company (1752). He also founded the American Philosophical Society (1743), organized Pennsylvania’s first militia (1747), served as Grand Master of Pennsylvania’s Freemasons (1749), and played a key role in the paving and lighting of Philadelphia’s streets (1751–62).
In all these group activities, the masterful self-promoter adhered to a rule of strict self-effacement. “The present little Sacrifice of your Vanity,” he explains in the autobiography, “will afterwards be amply repaid. If it remains a while uncertain to whom the Merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encourag’d to claim it, and then even Envy will be dispos’d to do you Justice, by plucking those assum’d Feathers, and restoring them to their right Owner.”
The subtlety of Franklin’s psychological observations is one of our main sources of pleasure in the autobiography. Suppose you want to lead a group. Should you try to lead by setting a perfect example? Franklin warns that “a perfect Character might be attended with the Inconvenience of being envied and hated.” A wise man “should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance.”
Suppose you want to turn an adversary into a friend. Should you do a favor for your foe, in the hope of earning his gratitude? No, Franklin says. Better to ask your foe to do a favor for you, and then express your gratitude in the strongest terms. “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
As Franklin recommends self-effacement to the promoter of any project that requires the support of other people, so he recommends self-effacement in conversation. His rules for the Junto included a stipulation that the group’s weekly discussions were to be conducted in “the sincere Spirit of Enquiry after Truth, without Fondness for Dispute, or Desire of Victory”—a stipulation taken so seriously that eventually “all Expressions of Positiveness in Opinion, or of direct Contradiction, were … made contraband and prohibited under small pecuniary Penalties.”