Qualities of a superlative leader – Intelligence, part 1

franklinHe was the tenth son of a Boston soap maker. His father intended for his son to enter the ministry but he had money enough for only one year of schooling when the profession required many. So he apprenticed the young man to his brother, James, a printer. The apprenticeship did not go all that well so after years of tedious work and regular beatings from James, at the tender age of 17, young Ben ran away to Philadelphia. Finding work there as an apprentice printer, he so distinguished himself that he began to make his mark in the city.

Using borrowed money he set himself up in business, winning contracts for government printing, and prosperity soon followed. After marrying, he and his wife expanded their business by opening a general goods store, a book store, and by expanding the print shop. In 1729, at the age of 26, he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. In 1733, Poor Richard’s Almanac debuted. The colonies did not lack for almanacs but filled with aphorisms and lively writing, Poor Richard’s soon climbed to the top of the heap.

In the 1730’s and 1740’s Franklin’s influence extended throughout the city. He helped launch projects to pave, clean and light the streets, began a lending library, started a fire insurance company, and invented the Franklin stove. In 1749, he retired from business to focus on science and inventing. He is the man who gave us the lightning rod, swim fins, and bifocal eyeglasses.

By the 1750’s he would become more deeply engaged in politics, but did not embrace the idea of independence until 1765. Years earlier he had put together a proposal for united colonies as a way to relate to England but now began actively pushing for separation from the crown. Serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin served as one of five on the committee to draft a declaration of independence.

His powers of persuasion, his skills of diplomacy, his gifts of creativity and inventiveness, his commitment to hard work and effectiveness places Benjamin Franklin among the pantheon of great Americans, great businessmen, and superlative leaders.

Biographers have revealed that Franklin was not an educated man, but he was, nonetheless, endowed with high intelligence. So, right off I want to disconnect advanced education from this quality. It is mostly true that people with advanced education are intelligent (I’m still not all that sure about some I’ve known). But it is NOT TRUE that if one does not have an advanced formal education one then can be deemed to be unintelligent. Education is one thing. Intelligence is another.

Intelligence as a word and as a quality is not simply defined. It is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—”catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do. Savvy might be a synonym in our application here.

I have compiled a list of a dozen traits that indicate intelligence. I will address four of them today, the others on Monday. Here they are in no particular order:

    1. Self- awareness. Dirty Harry’s catchphrase in Magnum Force was “a man’s got to know his limitations.” That’s true. And he’s got to know his strengths, too. Knowing what you’re good at …and what you’re not… means you are smart enough to know what you should tackle and where and when you need help
      • Smart people know who they are and have come to a place of being comfortable with themselves. They have identified their strengths and their weaknesses, then have acknowledged the former and accepted the latter.
      • Smart people know what they are and are unapologetic about their responsibilities. They have accepted the mantle of leadership and inserted themselves into their role with no need to flaunt it.
      • Smart people understand the power of their actions and their words, realize how it impacts the attitudes and actions of others, and behave accordingly.
      • Self-aware people know that they can neither relate well to everyone nor readily win them over. So they gather around them people who can extend their reach because they know precisely how far their reach, well, reaches.
    2. Other-awareness. Intelligent people are observant people. They have to be to be able see opportunities and avoid threats. Franklin saw an opportunity when he created the fire insurance industry, the profits that could be made in selling Poor Richard’s Almanac, and the ability to provide better vision for the impaired when he invented bifocals. But even more revealing is the skill with which he maneuvered through the turbulent conflicts and stormy personalities in the Second Continental Congress to get to an approved declaration of independence. His powers of other-awareness showed him how to solve the objections of the New York delegation while harnessing the energy and impulsiveness of the Massachusetts representatives.
    3. Self-Restraint. Just because one can doesn’t imply that one should. There is peril here because leaders have tremendous latitude. Followers typically give them a wide path to walk in. Intelligent people know when and how to control emotions, actions, and words. They play their role well, not to deceive or mislead, but to maximize their influence so that the right things get done. General Robert E. Lee said that “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” Smart people know the difference between a wildfire and a controlled burn. They understand the implications of unrestrained behavior in the board room or on the shop floor. Steven Covey wrote that “The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person.” Proactive people are people of deliberation, purpose, and intent. They are people of restraint.
    4. Capacity to learn, to learn quickly, to learn from experience. I almost left this trait out, it seems so obvious. But I encounter the opposite so often I decided it warranted inclusion here. The day I graduated from college, one of my professors offered a bit of wise insight when she said, “You have your degree. Now, you’re going to get an education.” She was correct. One student, we’ll call him Carl, who had returned to graduate school later in life, voiced his frustration over many of the other students in the program. He had a decade or so of experience. They did not. They had learned from books almost exclusively. He had the advantage of both classroom and life. They thought they knew just about everything. He understood there was so much more to learn. Indeed, every day there is more to learn. Smart people accept it, embrace it, and look forward to it. Not so smart people have learned just about all they are going to. But there is more. Intelligent people accept the lessons of life. They accept reality as it is, not believe that it is what they think it should be. They never let ideology trump reality. Never. One is fantasy. The other is honesty.

There are 8 more traits but I’ve taken enough of your time. See you on  Monday.