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Ben Franklin on continuous improvement

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Benjamin Franklin managed to set up America’s first publishing chain, public library, fire department and nonsectarian university; plus “discover” electricity; invent bifocals, a stove and daylight-saving time; map the Gulf Stream and write the first national best-seller.

He also established one-day mail service and home delivery … not to mention helping to write the founding documents of the United States.

What principles drove him?
  • Keep learning. Franklin had no formal education, but by age 11, he’d taught himself English, French and Italian.

    Related wisdom:
    “More is to be learned with the ear than the tongue.”

  • Take risks. “He that loves money the most shall lose,” Franklin said, because anxiety makes money-grubbers act defensively.

    By contrast, at age 26, Franklin already had established the nation’s first franchise system of printing shops because he trusted people enough to take risks.

  • Make things better. Franklin agreed with Plutarch, who said that one person can make a difference. At age 42, Franklin turned from printing to science, saying he would rather make himself useful than die rich. His invention of the lightning rod immediately curbed the number of homes succumbing to lightning strikes.

  • Master the art of compromise. Sometimes, you have to give up smaller points, so you can score bigger ones.

    When the states argued over their representation in Congress, Franklin proposed basing the House of Representatives on population, while making states equal in the Senate.

  • Pick partners wisely. As ambassador to France, Franklin became the greatest U.S. diplomat because our alliance with France would prove as important as any battle.

  • Adapt. At age 60, Franklin remained such a British loyalist that he risked the fury of Americans back home.

    Only when he saw that England would not let the colonists govern themselves did he become a revolutionary.

  • Think ahead. Instead of accepting a $1,000 salary to govern Pennsylvania, Franklin donated it to finance student loans. He noted that in 100 years, the repaid loans would grow to about $100,000, of which half should be used to endow public projects and half to continue financing loans.

    In 200 years, he calculated, the pot would reach $4 million and should go for education. It did.
—Adapted from “Benjamin Franklin’s Extraordinary Leadership,” Jack Uldrich, Leader to Leader, the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.

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