Franklin’s lesson on leadership

Published 7:33 pm Saturday, September 26, 2015

As I look around Washington, I can’t help but be reminded of a story I once heard about Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was known for having an enormous ego as a young man.

He once visited the Rev. Cotton Mather at his library. As they stepped out of the library, Mather called out, “Stoop! Stoop!” Franklin didn’t hear or understand Mather’s command and hit his head on a low beam. Not wanting to miss a moment for instruction, Mather said, “You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you miss many hard thumps.”

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Years later, Franklin recounted the visit in a letter to Cotton Mather’s son, writing, “I often think of it when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by carrying their heads too high.”

Franklin and Mather’s personalities were quite different. They didn’t agree on many things; they would sit on “opposite sides of the aisle,” to borrow a term from today’s politics. But in his writings later in life, Franklin credits his interactions with Mather for helping to soften his ego and lead him to a different style of leadership.

Today, we’ve grown accustomed to a particular way of leadership in Washington. It’s a way of pride that is too often focused on power, rather than principle. It happens regardless of ideology or political persuasion.

I think leaders in Washington often get so used to hearing the sounds of their own voices or the voices of others around them that they forget to listen to the voices of the people that matter most – the people they represent and serve.

Early in my time in Congress, while working in my office in Washington, I looked up and noticed all of the photos people had given me since I arrived. I saw framed pictures of me shaking hands with ambassadors, dignitaries and other government leaders.

Each photo represented an important interaction or conversation, but in that moment I realized how easy it is for Washington to deceive someone into thinking it’s all about them, to become so consumed with yourself and lose sight of why you are there in the first place.

So I replaced the photos. Now, a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence hangs on the largest wall in my office, surrounded by individual portraits of the 56 signers. It serves as a daily reminder of the magnitude of the responsibility we have here in Congress and as American citizens. It’s a visual representation of the shoulders upon which we stand.

I seek to apply this principle by cultivating conversations and creating avenues for listening — whether at tele-town halls, during office hours around the district, through feedback from weekly polls, or via email, Facebook and Twitter. Communication is not just important, it is part of the job description as your representative.

Our nation needs leaders who don’t just hear the American people, but are listening to them. That requires putting ego aside. That requires humility.

If Benjamin Franklin had been listening as he walked out of the library, he might have heard Mather tell him to stoop. Instead, he was so focused on other things – perhaps himself and his own agenda – that he wasn’t able to hear what was most important: the voice that saw things he didn’t.

Washington would do well to take heed. Humility in leadership must be expected, not the exception. This is the type of leadership that helped shape this country. And it is the type of leadership we need to move this country forward.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at