The Founding Fathers’ Surprising Skill Sets

Who knew George Washington was big on hearing diverse opinions? Or that Ben Franklin was all about agility? And that, save for his famous midnight ride, Paul Revere was an expert on teamwork?

Indeed, the traits and skills that helped build a nation nearly 250 years ago could also work pretty well running a modern-day organization. In honor of Independence Day, here are four of the most important lessons today’s leaders can take away from America’s Founding Fathers.

Less Hierarchy

George Washington’s leadership style was completely at odds with not only that of England’s but also much of the history of leadership up to that point. Instead of being hierarchal, Washington encouraged discussion and consideration of alternative approaches. He had to—his army consisted of a diverse mix of volunteers and militias with different traditions and backgrounds, primarily loyal to their own town, region, or colony. “Washington made that diversity an asset by actively seeking the advice of his subordinates,” says Signe Spencer, a senior consultant with Korn Ferry. 

Learning Agility

Ben Franklin’s capacity for learning is both well-known and unmatched. The scientist, philosopher, cartographer, postmaster, diplomat, and journalist spent his life acquiring knowledge. That ability to adapt to constantly-changing conditions is in demand at the highest levels of modern-day organizations, says Kevin Cashman, global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO and Executive Development practice. “Franklin embodied the best of transformational leadership,” says Cashman. 

Seamless Collaboration

Most know of Paul Revere only as the lone hero who rode a horse through the streets warning citizens that the British were coming. In fact, he was uniquely adept at uniting disparate and often competing groups around a common cause. Revere’s ride might never have been successful had he not first convinced several distinct Boston patriot groups, each with hundreds of influential citizens, to work together. “These groups all had their own focus and goals, with few connections and little or no formal communication between them,” says Spencer. “There was little overlap between them, and no overarching organization or command structure uniting them.” That is, until Revere took charge.

Purpose Power

Many factors contributed to the victory over the British—and the creation of the US Constitution, for that matter—but none perhaps more important than how everyone rallied around a common purpose. The Founding Fathers and the new country’s citizens all firmly believed in independence and came together to achieve it. Today, employees, consumers, and investors are demanding that organizations stand for more than just profit. They want to work at and back companies and leaders who are committed to making a positive social contribution. If harnessed correctly, purpose creates the conditions for success.

Authors

  • Signe Spencer

    Senior Consultant

  • Kevin Cashman

    Global Leader, CEO & Executive Development

    Bio >