The Founding Fathers on Leadership: Classic Teamwork in Changing Times

by Donald T. Phillips

unabridged edition from Audio Recorded Books

The author begins by setting the stage for the American Revolution.  He notes that the key leaders of the Revolutionary War were individuals who were being severely affected by the tax act and other power grabs by the British crown.  In other words, as an experienced trial lawyer in my first law firm said, “When they say it’s not about money; it’s about money.”  I do not feel that this analysis in any way diminishes the courage, integrity, or high aspirations of the individuals involved.  Although they might have been prepared to live out their lives without taking on the extraordinary risk and effort involved in creating a new country, especially one based on principles never before embraced in the world, circumstances did not permit.  The effort they undertook was one which had never been done before.  In other words, they were facing an “adaptive challenge.”  See, Leadership on the Line and Surfing the Edge of Chaos.

After running through a brief history of British actions that set the stage for the American Revolution, such as the ”Intolerable Acts”, actions against the colony of Massachusetts, the Stamp Act, etc. the author turns to the individuals involved, their characters, and the roles that they played during different times in the Revolution.  (The review of events leading to Revolution is mostly a brief mention of each act, without a great deal of explanation about the reasons and motivations for it and the impact on the colonies.  In other words, it assumes some grasp of the history of this time and is just a reminder for a knowledgeable reader.)

  • There is an interesting section on the common family histories of leaders.  Mr. Phillips suggests that many lose their fathers early, or have distant or difficult relationships with them.  On the other hand, many are unusually close to their mothers.  Would this be true for female leaders also?  In general, without additional background, this sort of anecdotal “proof” is a fairly questionable intellectual enterprise.  Might be worth research however.

It is interesting how the actors in this managed to generate forward motion, given the fact that many of them were focusing on a goal that had never been envisioned before, much less obtained.  Apparently, there was some sense early on the need for the colonies to establish a collaborative effort.  A number of the early patriots began calling for a Continental Congress.  This provided a mechanism to move forward. 

Because I have not yet listened to many audio books, I am not sure if it is the nature of the experience or the nature this book, but I seem to remember images rather than themes.  Thus, I think I will just record some of those images.

  • Sam Adams and Patrick Henry driving forward with relentless energy and generating early momentum through passion even as it appears that they recognized that others had better vision into the murky political realm toward which they moved and more eloquent capacity for invoking structures out of the formlessness of that realm.
  • Talk about a collaborative effort to meet an adaptive challenge! The quarter-century from 1771 to 1796 has to be one of the greatest examples of such an effort ever.
  • George Washington making bold tactical moves in the very first battles of the war in New York which almost ended in disaster, yet continuing to look for the opportunity for bold moves that later lead to victories at Trenton , New Jersey and Princeton in early 1777.  These victories, while not major, or extremely important in providing for the continued existence of the Continental Army three captured supplies and didn't providing political, propaganda, and morale support to the Army and to the rebels.  I would like to study Washington as a military leader more.  From this account, he emerges as a humble, but determined man, with a great deal of concern and identification with his troops.  He does not abandon his penchant for striking when he sees an opportunity, even though the first attempts are not only unsuccessful, but border on absolute disaster. He develops a strategy of guerrilla warfare against a foreign invader as the war goes along.  Eventually, especially with the entry of France and later Spain , this price becomes too great for the British to continue to pay, and they weary of the war.  By simply hanging on, Washington has won time for his troops to gain experience, realize the necessity of discipline, and acquire the training resource of Baron Von Steuben (?).  But even more impressively, Washington never gives up “Going for the Should”  (from Zap the Gaps!); he remembers constantly the objective to WIN independence, and when another opportunity for a bold stroke presents itself at Yorktown in 1781, he goes for it!
  • Thomas Paine acting as an early "embedded" correspondent and as a propagandist.  His role emphasizes the importance of placing efforts within a meaningful context.
  • The brilliance and literary skill of Thomas Jefferson, his willingness to be in the background until that skill was required, and the recognition of the skill not only by the delegates who placed him on the committee, but especially by John Adams in asking him to produce the first draft.  Apparently, that draft was edited on a slightly by Adams, frightened, and the other member of the committee.  It was edited somewhat more extensively, but always by simply striking phrases, by the delegates as a whole, often to placate the colony or group of colonies, such as the southern colonies on the issue of slavery.  Another interesting topic of study would be the actual writing of the declaration and the amendment process.  It would also be interesting to see the seeds of ideas expressed in the declaration in earlier writings of Jefferson, and perhaps others, although this presentation suggests that he made no reference to other works when he went to produce this document.  However, the influence of earlier works, and the writing of others, retained in his prodigious intellect, should appear.
  • Benjamin Franklin bringing his renown and experience on the continent to the effort.  What an incredible man, and what incredible productivity at the end of a long life.
  • George Washington with his "gift of silence" presiding over the Convention, then successfully bringing it to a close.  And, thereafter, creating the initial model of the presidency, then stepping aside after two terms.
  • James Madison putting in extensive preparation for the Constitutional Convention of 1787, including organizing meetings of delegates from Virginia and virtually single-handedly writing a draft that was discussed by those delegates, submitted to the convention, and became the framework for our Constitution.
  • James Madison allowing another delegate on the committee appointed to improve the wording of the Constitution to do most of the rewriting because of his superior literary skills.
  • Alexander Hamilton jumping in after the convention to leave the pro-ratification efforts through the native and aggressive use of media and the Federalist Papers.  Talk about not leading opposition's what you, Hamilton was only member of the New York delegation is won through the convention, and he rode back, against opposition from key leaders in New York, to actually sign our the document. 

If a sign of a good book is that it makes you want to read more about the subject, more of its type, or more from that author, then this was certainly a good book for me.  It created a desire to study more about the men involved in the founding of this country.  In fact, I've already started listening to a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Paul Jones.

June, 2003