A couple of themes that we regularly visit when consulting with companies are those of power-over versus power-to, and of the underutilized potential of common goals. In the lead up to Independence Day, these two themes again came to mind.
As is characteristic of most institutionally important characters, the stories of our founding fathers have been rendered as mythology. The generalized morals and values that we wish to perpetuate as inherent in our national character are played up, and the untidy, vulgar humanity of the founders is sanitized. Too bad, because the historical facts that surround the relationship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are both informative as well as confounding.
Adams and Jefferson were men of different backgrounds, different temperaments and held polar opposite views on the balance of power between the Federal government and the State governments. One was an arrogant, elitist New England farmer. The other was an erudite Virginia plantation master, architect, engineer and man of letters. And they were friends.
United by the common goal of breaking free of the perceived tyranny of King George, these two were assigned to the five person Independence Committee of the Continental Congress, and as a pair were assigned the action of drafting a statement declaring the secession and independence of the united American colonies. Their work in articulating a broadly accepted and admired Declaration of Independence, and their positions in the conduct of the subsequent war and in the formation of the unique democratic experiment in government that resulted, established between them a deep respect for the purity of each other’s motives and a deep personal friendship.
Adams and Jefferson were ballot rivals when George Washington chose not to run for a third term. Adams ran as a Federalist, Jefferson as a Democratic-Republican and Adams won by three electoral votes. By quirk of how elections were conducted at that time, Jefferson from the competing party served as Adams’ vice president. The friendship that united them brought civility to their political disagreements. Specifically, they debated whether the federal government should control and build a dominant centralized power or whether it should distribute power to the states.
This debate continues to be played out today in the private sector as geographically dispersed corporations struggle with the balance point between the necessary controls maintained by headquarters and the degree of autonomy allowed to the distributed sites. Our personal bias is on the side of distributed management authority and autonomy in recognition that local effectiveness is in large measure contingent upon local control.
The mudslinging that characterizes modern politics and that makes the run up to elections so off putting is not modern at all. The election of 1800 in which Jefferson defeated Adams in his attempt to secure a second term was so harsh with negative rumor and innuendo that it ruptured the bond between the two and bitterness filled the space between them. These civil rivals became bitter rivals.
For eighteen years there was very little communication between Adams and Jefferson, but when Abigail, Adam’s wife of 54 years, died, a sympathetic exchange of letters opened up a ‘normalization of relationships’ between Jefferson and Adams. As the two again engaged in regular communication, the rivalry of their politics and their world views continued, but their exchanges were once again characterized by measured civility and respect.
As Adams and Jefferson became the sole survivors among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Adams volunteered that he was determined to live to see the 50th anniversary of the signing in 1826. The human will is an amazingly powerful tool. When applied to control others the common result is a war of wills, and we often find that the ends are suboptimal, skewed by the confrontational means. But when our will power is turned on ourselves in acts of commitment and determination, it is astounding what can be achieved.
Willing himself to live to 90 years of age, at a time when such longevity was rare, Adams did survive to see the 50th anniversary of the signing. Astonishingly, he lived to reach the 50th anniversary, but he died on that day. His last words were a competitive lament that ‘Thomas Jefferson survives’. Unknown to the dying Adams was the fact that Jefferson had passed away earlier that same day. That these two polar rivals among the founding fathers, the two assigned drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the last survivors among its signers both passed away on its 50th anniversary astounds.
In our modern world and our focused segment of product development, the balance point between control and distributed authority remains an important consideration in the pursuit of business success. And the use of will to motivate ourselves to high achievement supersedes its misapplication in attempts to control the behavior of others. The lessons from the relationship of Adams and Jefferson are instructive. Perhaps most valuable amongst them are that civility can exist in the discourse of diametrically opposed views, and that the great strength of the bonds built on the successful pursuit of common goals, once shattered, can be gracefully repaired by the recovery of humanity and the application of good will.