Lessons From The Founding Fathers On Leading A Breakthrough Meeting

Here's how George Washington created consensus among a group of strong-willed men representing states at the most important meeting of all time: The Constitutional Convention of 1787

What can you learn about leading a meeting from our founding fathers? Plenty. Consider this: meeting for the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia back in 1787, a group of strong-willed men representing states with very different interests sat down and created a document that has been foundation of America's achievements for over two hundred years. That same document was both strong enough to provide a set of rules on how a growing nation would govern itself yet was flexible enough to be changed with the times.

How did the founding fathers accomplish such a feat? The lessons below explain why and provide excellent rules to follow if you too are trying to achieve lasting success.

1. Have a good reason for the meeting. After winning the revolution the founding fathers put in place the Articles of Confederation as the basis for governing the new country. Having just suffered under a strong monarchy, the creators of the articles expressly constructed them to have a weak central government. However, it was soon realized that this approach would not work, as the states each sought to go their own way to the detriment of the whole. The fledgling nation was in peril. Recognizing the problem, respected leaders such as Washington, Madison, and Hamilton proposed a meeting to fix the articles and so remedy the untenable situation.

If, in our careers, each of us hadn't been invited to so many meetings that were unnecessary we would easily agree this is an obvious point. But the fact that we have been means that, if you are calling a meeting, make sure there's a really good reason to do so. And then...

2. Invite the right people. To create a new framework for government and ensure its acceptance from the populace the conveners of the convention had to take care to invite the right attendees. They did this by asking each state to determine who would attend to represent its interests at the meeting. By taking this approach, the conveners ensured those attending would be viewed as legitimate by their state and the resulting document would thus be legitimate.

Again, the same goes for us today. For a meeting to produce good results we need to have all the key players there to represent the different viewpoints and interests of those being affected.

3. Take the long-term view. The founding fathers weren't just looking at ensuring success over the next quarter, or year or even decade. They were creating a document that could stand the test of time. Washington and the other founders knew that "the fate of unborn millions" would depend on their wisdom. And so they met and deliberated with this goal in mind. As importantly, they knew they needed to...

4. Face reality. The framers of the Constitution knew the frailties and foibles of men and government. They understood that "if men were angels no government would be necessary," but also that men were anything but angels. Knowing this, they strove to create rules that would free individuals to achieve their dreams but also constrain them such as to limit their desire for power over others. 

The two points above are key for us as well. Too often we seek to either avoid the real issues or just patch over the problem long enough for it to no longer be ours. But if we really want to do the best thing, we need to look reality squarely in the face and develop long-term solutions that address our difficulties. To do it's critical to...

5. Do your homework ahead of time. To ensure that they could craft a document that would last centuries, the leaders of the convention studied how governments in the past had thrived or failed. They looked at ancient democracies such as Greece and Rome but also read the latest thinking on government from thought-leaders of the day, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They used this knowledge to incorporate into the Constitution what they thought were the best ideas and practices from both ancient and "modern" times.

It follows, then, that for us to do the preparation required to ensure we have all the facts at hand to enable participants to make informed decisions.

6. Work the attendees beforehand. Given the conditions of travel at the time, the delegates to the convention straggled in over several days. James Madison, as mentioned earlier a key proponent of the meeting, didn't waste this time but instead used it well to meet with delegates individually as they arrived. His goal: lobbying them to change the agenda of the meeting from one of tinkering with the articles of confederation (the stated purpose of the convention) to its wholesale replacement. This pre-meeting lobbying was so effective in that, after it began, the convention moved rather quickly to agreeing on the principle of replacement.

7. Have a plan to start with. The convention didn't begin with the delegates just showing up in Philadelphia and starting from scratch. Leaders such as James Madison and Edmund Randolph developed a plan ahead of time, called the "Virginia Plan." It provided a place to start the conversation and while it wasn't accepted lock, stock and barrel, several facets of the plan would eventually become part of the Constitution.

These two steps, having a plan and lobbying attendees beforehand, are as critical today as they were in the time of the Founders. Each go a long way towards ensuring success, as does the need to...

8. Have the presider facilitate and not dictate. Because of his stature during the Revolution George Washington was chosen to preside over the convention. While he could have easily used his influence to drive the meeting a certain conclusion or launched long monologues to feed his ego that was not his style. Instead, Washington wisely chose to facilitate the conversation. He worked hard to ensure everyone's voice was heard and concerns were debated fairly, following the rule that, until the final document was drafted, no issue would be considered closed and could be brought back up at any time. This not only resulted in a better document but significantly improved its chances of acceptance by the delegates.

9. Compromise to gain agreement. With all the competing interests and ideas a successful conclusion could not have been reached without honest compromise. One example was the "Connecticut Compromise". This agreement helped reconcile the Virginia Plan, which favored the large states, with the New Jersey Plan, which favored small ones. This reconciliation led to the creation of two types of legislatures—the Senate, in which all states were equally represented (thus satisfying the small states), and the House, in which states received representation based on population (which made the large states happy).

Having a smart meeting leader facilitate the team through the key decisions (and not dictate the solution) and bringing them to compromise are two essential components to making your meeting meet its objectives. And now that you've accomplished that it's important that you...

10. Get attendees to "sign their John Hancock." At the conclusion of the convention, the delegates didn't just finish the document and leave. Most signed their names to the document, starting with Washington as presider and  then signing by state, going from the north to south. The act of signing illustrated a strong commitment to what had just taken place. And, OK, John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, but the saying still applies.

11. Lobby strongly after the meeting. It is likely no delegate was entirely satisfied with the Constitution but most probably agreed with Washington, who stated that this was probably the "best Constitution that can be obtained at this Epocha." Nonetheless, many went back to their states to promote its adoption as it had to be ratified by two-thirds, or nine states, to go into effect. The most famous support of the Constitution came in the form of The Federalist Papers, a series of articles ghost written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to attain the ratification of the Constitution by the state of New York.

Without these last two steps, gaining attendee commitment and having them lobby their organizations vigorously afterwards, all the prior work may be for naught. So you can't forget these key points.

Today many of us marvel at what the founders wrought in those hot months of the summer of 1787. But it is important to recognize that, without the steps they took to make the meeting a success, they would not have achieved the breakthrough that is the Constitution.

[Paintings: John Trumbull and Jean Leon Gerome Ferris]

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4 Comments

  • John Murphy

    Mark, these are great tips. I particularly like the one about doing your homework ahead of the meeting. So many do not and it wastes an amazing amount of time. Thank you for these tips

  • Mark McNeilly

     Yes, can't count the number of meetings I've gone to in which there's no agenda or prep work.

  • Christina Damiano

    What a great analogy to use this moment in history, Mark. I have often referred back to this very time period (being a lover of history and a political science geek) in providing an example of conflict resolution, team building, collaboration at work. How you tie it to meeting success (which most of us in the business world know that we have been victims to failure much more often) is excellent. Thanks!

  • Mark McNeilly

     Christina, glad you liked it! As you say, there is much to be learned from history, especially from this era.