Further Thoughts on the Big Little Book

  • ·         The 110 maxims on personal conduct conjure two images in my mind. One is the Book of Proverbs in the Bible’s Old Testament. Like the verses in Proverbs, the 110 points are direct, pithy, and eminently practical (at least in the setting for which they’re written). There is a stern aroma of morality and judgment. The 110 points are often quite specific and directive. And along the way you detect the intent that these little bits of advice are means to an end, adding up to a worthy life, pieces of a puzzle which, if put together, will produce a satisfying outcome. The other image that comes to mind is John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. The venerable UCLA basketball coach designed 17 blocks, each named with a particular virtue or attribute, which fit into the form of a pyramid. Wooden used the pyramid as a teaching tool for his young basketball players. Tens of thousands of people in various organizations have also adopted them as their own. Whether in sports or other walk of life, Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is a pathway that some people believe can be followed to a more meaningful, productive life. 200 years before Wooden drew up the Pyramid of Success, Washington copied by hand the 110 rules on civility and personal behavior.
  • ·         Speaking of these two images, the 110 maxims should be part of our understanding on Washington’s approach to spirituality, especially Christianity. It’s normally thought that Washington was either a deist or a very indifferent member of the Christian faith. I tend to believe otherwise. He’s quite unorthodox, to be sure—scarcely a mention of Jesus Christ in the vast amount of his writings—but you can detect the undercurrent of spiritual-like impulses in many of the maxims. Washington’s morality was deeply rooted in Christianity. And if you connect Washington’s frequent references to prayer during the Revolutionary War to the tone of the 110 maxims, we may need to revise our view of spirituality in his life and leadership.
  • ·         If you’re curious about any specific incidents that I think qualify as showing the effects of the 110 maxims, I have a couple of thoughts. For one, look at Washington’s conduct as he presided over the Constitutional Convention. It fits perfectly with the maxims. For another, the officers who served under Washington during the Revolutionary War could have testified to his adherence to the110 rules, especially in outward demeanor and communication.
  • ·         As an aside, I’ve developed a module on early/later leadership that uses Washington as an example. Here’s what I mean—leadership early in your work life versus leadership later in your work life. It’s especially helpful for people who are entering a new leadership position that is significant in their jobs or careers. In Washington’s case, I help participants learn from Washington’s leadership behavior in his 40s as compared to that of his 20s. It’s very illuminating. Let me know if you think this would be beneficial for leaders in your organization.
  • ·         The word that best captured what the 110 maxims and other Enlightenment writings emphasized was “virtue.” Virtue was a concept that dominated much of public discourse in the 18th century. Virtue was, loosely, living a life that embodied propriety, harmony, orderliness, restraint, fulfillment of duty, and a sense of the public good and common good outside of one’s self. Virtue was an ideal pursued by many leaders in the 18th century which, of course, was seldom attained in the real world. The Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary generation attempted to establish an independent nation grounded upon the ideal of virtue. For many of them, the breaking of bonds with England was a necessity in order to seek and protect virtue.
  • ·         Do you want one indication of how far we’ve moved from the 18th century? When was the last time you heard anyone these days use the word “maxims?” In fact, probably one of the most recognizable forms of the word in our society is the magazine entitled Maxim. In case you don’t know, it’s basically a soft-porn publication of female celebrities in various states of quasi-undress, one of hundreds either in print, on television, or the internet. The Maxim America of the 21st century is a state of perpetual adolescence. The Maxim America of the 18th century—and yes, I know it was far from perfect and that there were lots of things wrong then—was something quite different. From maxim to Maxim, from virtue to vice as a public value, that’s just about all you need to know regarding the distance from Washington’s America to ours.
  • ·         It’s a big statement to say that a book has shaped your life. What does it take for a book to have that effect? In the video clip I said that Washington’s big little book probably “filled a void” in his teenage life. Having a void filled is a long way from saying that something has had a lasting, life-changing impact. So, what was it about the book that caused Washington to see it as having such a long-term influence? First, the book’s rules applied to situations that recurred in Washington’s life. They were useful over decades, not just weeks or months. Second, the assumptions embedded in the rules reflected a pre-existing set of assumptions in Washington. He valued conversations at social gatherings; so did the book’s author. Third, and this is a separate point, the rules produced positive results for Washington. He sensed in some measure that they worked. Thus, continued relevance combined with constant effectiveness. Fourth, there was the book was written so that Washington could absorb, retain, and recall its contents in moments throughout his life. Perhaps it was brevity or simplicity or something else, whichever it was, the points stuck in Washington’s mind. When these four elements are evident for the reader of a book, that book will have an impact that lasts far beyond the time it takes to read it.
  • ·         We’re often told that we are moving away from books, and from reading generally. Our 21st century America is one afflicted with visual images, short attention spans, and the need to be shocked. If that’s true, you begin to think differently about the ability of any book or writing to affect more than a small number of people. For those inclined to reading, it may be that they will feel ever most distant and disconnected from the rest of society. They will, perhaps, form a type of “subculture,” just as removed and detached as enthusiasts of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, scrapbooking, Italian cooking, or fly fishing. Readers and book-lovers as a subculture—that’s a rather dismal prospect for American life, don’t you think?
  • ·         Look around you at the leaders you know. What are their influences? If not a book or article, what then? Some will take the quick and easy way out—“experience.” I don’t buy it. If there is any validity to experience as a teacher, it’s almost guaranteed that a small set of experiences have exerted the most influence. Ever wonder, then, what that small subset of experiences are for them? For you?