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Mr. Franklin’s Leadership Maxims
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
How should you express yourself if you want to win support from others in a group? In his youth, Franklin admits, he was innocent enough to believe that strong opinions should be strongly expressed. Life taught him another lesson, and he “made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own. I even forbid myself … the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly &c. 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. When another asserted something, that 1 thought an Error, I deny’d my self 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 that in the present case there appear’d , or seem’d to me some Difference.…”
With regard to humility in general, Franklin confesses that “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance .…” The appearance produced large benefits: “The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and 1 more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes and join with me when I happen’d to be in the right.” Indeed, Franklin claims to have succeeded so well in overcoming his youthful habit of “abrupt Contradiction” that “perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me,” and he credits his modesty of speech, after only his “Character of Integrity,” for the fact that he acquired early in life “so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old.…”
A wise man, Franklin observes in his autobiography, “should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance.”
With that introduction, let us listen again to the last public speech of a strong-minded businessman who has spent much of his life getting things done through groups, and who now wishes to persuade a group of comparably strong-minded men to join him in setting aside their doubts about a document that does not completely satisfy anyone.
“I confess,” the sick old man wrote in the speech that James Wilson of Pennsylvania delivered on his behalf on September 17, 1787, “that there are several parts of this Constitution which 1 do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions, even on important subjects, which 1 once thought right but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay attention to the judgment of others.…
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such.… I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?…
“Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.…
“On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would, with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
In France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin had won a formidable reputation as a ladies’ man, but it seems unlikely that he wooed the women of French society any more sweetly than he wooed his recalcitrant colleagues at the Constitutional Convention.
In the business literature of our own time, much is written about the importance of “team play.” Franklin’s career as a team player began with the young tradesmen of the Junto and ended with the teams that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Most of us can learn something from him. I myself have been known to speak rashly in the face of opinions I considered idiotic, but more and more, as I grow older, I make an effort to “doubt a little” of my infallibility, and to remember Franklin’s warning: “these disputing, contradicting and confuting People are generally unfortunate in their Affairs. They get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”