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Leadership Lessons from July 4th – 237 Years Ago

I hope you and your family had a happy 4th of July holiday, I did! But I wonder how many of you realize what happened on this same day 237 years ago? In fact July 4th then was also on a Thursday, just like this year.

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I hope you and your family had a happy 4th of July holiday, I did! But I wonder how many of you realize what happened on this same day 237 years ago? In fact July 4th then was also on a Thursday, just like this year.

This week I happen to be reading two books that really enlightened me about what it was like 237 years ago. The first is Revolutionary Summer by Joseph Ellis, which my daughter, Alie, gave me. The second is Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow. In these books we get to learn about the details behind what happened in 1776. Here are just three brief leadership lessons I have taken away so far:

  1. Leaders who set a clear overarching goal and stay focused on it will achieve great things.
  2. Front-line troops or workers who have smart, focused political leadership behind them, can be inspired to do extraordinary things.
  3. Effectively led and inspired revolutionaries with nothing to lose will outlast and defeat standing and professional armies.

Clear Overarching Goal

John Adams, arguably the most important revolutionary political leader, knew how to focus a group of colonies on one goal – independence. For example, even though he was against slavery, he recommended against addressing slavery directly in the move for independence because he knew that the goal would then shift from independence to resolving slavery. If that happened, we would lose the opportunity to become independent. Talk about foresight, we now know how the slavery subject divided our country “four score” years later. (At the time the Declaration was passed, 20% of our 2,500,000 population was African-American and 90% of those folks were slaves.)

Smart Political Leaders Are Needed. We celebrate the 4th because that was the Thursday the Continental Congress in Philadelphia passed the formal text of the Declaration of Independence. But it really was anti-climactic because they had already voted for independence on July 2nd. But the smart political leadership that led up to this formal document is the real leadership story.

Although many of us think of Thomas Jefferson when we think of the Declaration, and he was the person who primarily crafted the wording for the final document, John Adams really deserves leadership credit for getting us to that event. Adams designed a step by step process and wrote legislation passed by the Continental Congress on May 12th that helped colonies replace their colonial constitutions (written by the King) with state constitutions – a necessary legal step to make independence official.

The primary reason we had a formal Declaration of Independence was mostly because Adams and Benjamin Franklin knew we needed one before foreign countries could recognize us, do business with us, and offer military assistance. Furthermore, Adams and others knew that the Declaration would only be recognized by foreign governments after all the colonies adopted individual state constitutions and authorized their representatives to vote for independence. Until we took this formal step we were legally part of Great Britain. These are just a few examples of how great our political leadership was at that time.

Effectively Led and Inspired Revolutionaries

According to author Ron Chernow, official copies of the Declaration weren’t finished and signed until Saturday, July 6th. On that day the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, who was in Philadelphia, sent General Washington a signed copy. Washington, who was up in New York with his troops, received it on July 8th and had it read to the troops on July 9th. After it was read to them, the troops got really fired-up.

Washington needed to fire-up his revolutionaries.

First, many of his smart and skilled troops had left after the Siege of Boston and gone back to their farms and villages to pursue their professions and trades. Many of the troops that remained were unskilled, uneducated, undisciplined, and virtually unemployable. He wondered if these troops could really fight the highly trained, professional British soldiers the King sent along with the Prussian soldiers the King was about to hire.

Second, what the troops also knew then was they couldn’t turn back. They knew each of them were now traitors in the eyes of the King. They heard that British judges had recently sentenced Irish revolutionaries to be “drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead, for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters.”

Imagine this. You really would have to have nothing to lose to volunteer for this.

George Washington used the Declaration as a means of motivating his very under-manned, under-skilled, under-equipped, and under-experienced troops. He knew he had his hands full.

Washington also knew that if he was captured, he would be happily executed by the King. So if the battles of the Revolutionary War didn’t kill him, the King would. Now that is brave leadership.

As I thought about these brave leaders 237 years ago and how well they dealt with the many life and death variables they faced, I really appreciated the peaceful and relaxing holiday I experienced. How about you?