30 Nov 2017 17:28 IST

The Benjamin ladder for leaders

Franklin’s system for personal growth points to a disciplined path of development of skills, values

In our quest to grow as leaders, we need a ladder that provides us structure and, if we lean it against the right wall, direction. In our last post, we reflected on the 5-Rs — Record, Review, Reflect, Renew and Refresh . We looked at that as an effective tool, an essential habit to help us become better leaders. But what should the 5-Rs aim at? What do we layer it over? What skills and values should they help us build?

One of the more self-aware and growth-focused leaders, Benjamin Franklin, shows us such a leader-ladder.

Benjamin’s background

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. He was a politician, a diplomat, a scientist, an inventor, an author, educator, philosopher, humanitarian all rolled into one. He was one of the founding fathers of the US and his achievements ranged from inventions of the lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin stove, to being the first US Ambassador to France, who helped create the foundations of the then emerging country.

Walter Isaacson, one of his biographers, called him ‘the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become’.

As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to find, among my father’s collection of books, Franklin’s autobiography. While it was a hard read at that age, I was thrilled with the discovery of Franklin’s system for personal growth. I found in it a disciplined path to the development of skills and values.

Drop the old; get the new

I embraced the system with fervour and followed it through much of my youth. I would credit it with giving me some of the discipline, rigour and thirst for personal growth, that have been great assets in my journey as a human being and aspiring leader. I would strongly recommend a full reading of Franklin’s autobiography, for you as young and aspiring leaders. His growth system alone is a gem worth acquiring.

In his words: “It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection… But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my attention was taken up and care employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another. Habit took the advantage of inattention. Inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping and that the contrary habits must be broken and good ones acquired and established before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.”

Don’t those sentiments resonate with us? We struggle to grow, to drop old and destructive habits and acquire new, constructive ones. Poor execution often defeats even our best intentions. Franklin’s ‘bold and arduous project’ shows us how to get better at this task of personal leadership growth.

The black dot

The system he created to achieve this was simple and effective. He listed 13 virtues that he wished to acquire — these ranged from temperance and silence to cleanliness and humility. To each, he affixed a summary note to state what the virtue meant and what its practice would achieve.

Next, he decided that rather than try to acquire all of them at once, he would focus his attention on one virtue a week, and then move on to the next. As he put it: ‘Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro’ a course in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year’.

Book of virtues

To monitor his progress, he created a rigorous process. In a little notebook, he allotted one page to each virtue. On each page, he drew seven columns — one for each day of the week — and 13 rows — one for each virtue, which he marked using the first letter.

His process was that he would review every day, and mark any failure with a little black spot. In his words: Thus in my first week, my great guard was to avoid even the least offence against temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening, the faults of the day. Thus if in the first week, I could keep my first line marked ‘T’ (for Temperance) clear of spots, I supposed the habit of that virtue so much strengthened and its opposite weakened, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next, and for the following week, keep both lines clear of spots.

This is an amazing system because it combines several characteristics.

~ It is positive : The goal is to acquire the virtue, and at the same time, eliminate the vice. A clear line in his notebook row — and by implication, a gradual acquisition of the virtue — serves as an energising motivator.

~ The system enables focus : By ensuring that each week, attention is paid to a single virtue, there is a greater chance of positive behaviour. Focus gives the whole endeavour power.

~ It builds consistency : As we know, consistency creates habit. The occasional practice of a virtue or skill does not ingrain or embed it. It needs a relentless return to practice, while we go about the everyday routine of our lives.

~ It contains the 5R framework : The little book with its columns and rows ensures the record. The everyday review allows a check on progress. The weekly transition from one virtue to another allows time for reflection on the preceding and succeeding virtue.

And I like to think that the completion of each 13-week cycle gave Franklin time to renew his commitment to the discipline and refresh his energy for the next phase of growth.

Personalising the rules

I made some variations to the system over the time I used it. Here, I outline some of them, should you find them useful in your own application of the system.

~ I found I was able to use the system for not just values, but also for skills. So, while outlining your own list, it may be a good idea to combine both skills and values that you would like on your leader wish-list.

It could be knowledge in a subject that can complement your core coursework; skill of getting better at presentations; value of taking responsibility and not making excuses.

~ I felt that a week was too short for a habit to take root, so in some years, I followed a three-week cycle — with three weeks devoted to each habit before moving on to the next. And during the final 13-week cycle of the year, do it one week at a time — almost as a renew and refresh. Research suggests it takes a minimum 21-day period of practice to acquire a new habit.

~ I also wanted to focus more on acquiring good habits and practices rather than just destroy old ones, so I would use a green mark to denote a positive behaviour or demonstration of the skill or value I was trying to acquire. This way, I was not just aiming for a blank row, but a spotted green one.

I still retain the old notebooks I used to record and review my progress in, and continually find in them both inspiration and hope — that if only one stays disciplined and committed, to the path of growth generously rewards you.

Let us close with Benjamin Franklin’s own assessment of the system: I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults that I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish... It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor owed the constant felicity of his life down to his seventy-ninth year, in which this is written.”

(All quotes taken from ‘Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings’. Selected and edited L Jesse Lemisch. A Signet Classic published by The New American Library of World Literature, Inc.)

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