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« Following Values | Main | Apprentice or Apprenti? »

Dec15
Winging It
Last night I watched a lecture by David McCullogh, celebrated historian and best-selling author of books on American leaders such as 1776, Harry Truman, John Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt. His oration about the early American revolutionary leadership was fascinating. He noted several important facts that I did not know. He noted that indeed these men were engaged in a great experiment for which the outcome was unknown. They had no “revolutionary experience.” In McCullough’s words, “they were winging it, improvising.” They had nothing but their collective vision and common sense to guide them. No precedent existed.

Perhaps it was helpful then that they were all so young. McCullough noted that most of the leadership – Washington, Jefferson, Adams – were not experienced statesmen. Washington, the oldest of the team was 43 when given the command of the Continental army in 1775. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Adams was 40. What they lacked in experience they replaced with commitment, resolve and work. Their perspective was fresh and not dimmed by history or the common view of the world.

These men were on a course to change how leadership was defined. They created a transformation from Aristocratic or Monarch leadership that was based on one's blood or divine sanction to more democratically inclined leadership where the key elements of leadership were based on talent, intelligence, competence and results.

Despite their inexperience in nation-building and world politics, these men were leaders in this historical task. People followed them because of their commitment to the cause, their vision and their character. They created positive change. While the principles of democracy were not common or popular at the time, these principles resonated as truth to the citizens of the young republic. These young men showed the way and then walked the way, changing the world.

We would all likely agree that "winging it" is not a principle of leadership.  But this historic example shows that leaders must often navigate in darkness and without a perfect knowledge of what may lie on the path ahead.  What leaders must know is where they want that path to lead.  That is vision.  A leader will not only effectively articulate where the organization is going but how it will get there and then take it there.  For truly great things to happen, that might mean "winging it."

comments

The leaders mentioned in your blog were "winging it...but with a vision"...you have a nice perspective and voice in your blogs..I will visit often

Thanks for the comment and encouragement.

What is interesting to me is that their vision was so defined (or appears so 230 years later) with few guideposts. That seemed to be McCulloughs point. We think of these men as elderly statesman because that is how history paints them (in word and painting) but a deeper understanding reveals that they were likely scared, unsure, and often even "winging it." But their vision and commitment to the vision brought them through.

You are correct and stated it better than me. "winging it ...but with a vision."

Winging it is much more common than leaders want you to know.

If you liked McCullough and his take try Alexander Hamilton by Chernow. A wonderful read and prespective.

J >>> thanks for checking in and for your suggestion. I started Alexander Hamilton by Chernow (one third thorugh it) but got distracted and have not finished it. Your suggestion is a good prompt to go back and finish it. Hamilton was another of the "young" leaders of the revolution and a genius. His writing and innovative thinking was inspiring and shaped the nation.

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