The Declaration of Independence: Five Thoughts For Your Leadership

I offer these five thoughts for leadership, drawn from the Declaration of Independence.

#1 The Declaration was the work of a committee.

A group of five delegates got the call to form a committee to write a draft of the Declaration for review, editing, and completion. In addition, the Continental Congress constituted itself as a committee-of-the-whole. In this fashion each of the fifty or so members had an opportunity (multiple opportunities, in fact, for some) to request or demand changes to the drafts.

Think about that: a committee produced the draft, and then a larger committee sorted and sifted and slashed its way to produce a final document.

The process of draft-making consumed eighteen days. Three drafts appeared; the first two in the smaller committee and the third in the larger iteration. The process of a final, completed document required another few days.

If you’re amazed that a bi-level committee process got the job done, you’re not alone. I’m amazed, too. My amazement is all the more amazing because I’ve been thinking about this stuff for decades. And yet, I still find it remarkable that the pair of committees produced a conclusive document.

For you as a leader: sometimes a committee can indeed get it done—but if that is to be true you will need to understand the reasons which will make it so.

#2 The Declaration had a driver.

It’s Thomas Jefferson. He was on the five-delegate committee. Though young and not as widely known across the British colonies as others might have been, Jefferson had a proven reputation as a skillful, graceful, meaningful writer. He was also well-versed in arguments for and against independence. With quill pen in ink-stained fingers, Jefferson emerges as the driver of the writing committee. It’s likely that the other four members were more than a little relieved to have someone else step up.

Jefferson didn’t do it all alone. He had help, including from Benjamin Franklin, who knew phrasing perhaps better than anyone in the Continental Congress. He had strong personalities on the writing committee as well; John Adams could be counted on as a shield against the most abrasive opponent. Nevertheless, Jefferson seized the task of writing and produced or reworked two drafts in committee.

For you as a leader: the committee gains in effectiveness if the best people apply their best skills to the tasks at hand. Give the committee a chance to sort this out itself.

#3 The Declaration’s final version excluded the most divisive section and issue.

The reality of having a committee produce a birth document–a founding or starting-up document–is that the most controversial and divisive elements that should be tackled and resolved won’t be. They’ll be laid aside, pushed out of sight. Slavery and enslavement, of course, were the equivalent of eating fire in the debates over editing the original draft of the Declaration. Jefferson had inserted a clause recognizing the horrific practice and institution for what it was (up to a point—he shifted blame to the British King). When the larger committee-of-the-whole arrived at this point in the editing, the entire group erupted. Arguments, ill-will, hostility, and more, all of it poured out in the minutes, quarter-hours, and hours of intense debate over Jefferson’s enslavement reference. The pill would not be swallowed; the illness and defect remained. The referencing paragraph was stricken and erased. The bomb went under the blanket.

For you as a leader: if your group or entity has a serious internal flaw and destructive contradiction, tackle it now, in the moment, and don’t assume or hope that it will resolve itself smoothly over time. Likely it won’t. Likely it will fester and grow in ways you can’t even imagine. Likely you’ll merely delay the inevitable knock on the door. That’s when reckoning comes calling and life gets a vote.

#4 The Declaration ignored the need for originality.

The content for the Declaration was an amalgamation of various ideas, phrases, and terminology. Some of it was philosophical and made in the ivory tower, some of it was hard-headed and tough-minded and forged on the street. This is another reason to applaud Jefferson as the writer-driver. He was attuned to both the tavern and the college, to ale and wine. He also benefited from relationships with committee members and delegates who furnished what he lacked. He didn’t have to invent every sentence and thought.

The challenge of originality was thus saved for something higher—namely, the point and purpose of the document: a self-governing republic torn in violent creation from the body of another nation. The Continental Congress aimed its energy at the right target (though incompletely done in continuing enslavement).

For you as a leader: originality and innovation require their own energies and energy sources. Don’t add to your burdens by assuming the need to originate everything yourself. Don’t squander elsewhere what you’ll need for creating something new, something different, or something differentiated. Waste not.

#5 The Declaration linked case to cause.

The delegates of the Continental Congress were the Declaration’s writers, readers, editors, and critics, rolled into one. The paper they handled—be it a draft or final document—consistently framed the Declaration as a legal document. In it were items of grievance, numerous and specific. One after another, they consume the bulk of the written words and the majority of blank space on the sheets. The items amounted to cases, as in a phrase known to you: the case-in-point. In the real time of 1776 and the months leading up to then, these cases meant everything to the people announcing their intent.

The cases followed the preamble or opening statement. They particularized the reasoning behind the goal and added up to the sum of independence. In other words, they tied together and formed an impetus toward a bigger vision and purpose. The cases made a cause.

The key letter was “u.”

For you as a leader: the communication you share or express to other people must, in the end, stand as a whole. Anything less is a fragment or piece and thus will fail to deliver the impact you want. Anything less than completeness and wholeness will leave room for confusion, doubt, and misunderstanding. Anything less is a waste of precious time.

All for now. Thanks for reading and have a memorable 4th. All the best, Dan