Sunday, May 24, 2009

World-Changing Anniversaries

This week marks two world-changing anniversaries -- they will go unnoticed on your Outlook calendar or CNN's news crawl. You won't hear your favorite NPR or PBS commentator wax eloquent about these propitious days. The blogosphere and talk show hosts, left, right, and center, will not be foaming at the mouth about them...BUT...

On May 25, 1787, the U.S. Constitutional Convention officially opened in Philadelphia. Delegates from 12 of the 13 states were drifting in with different agendas and expectations. Some thought they were just going to spend a few weeks making some amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation that had governed the new nation for a handful of years. Some weren't sure what was going to happen but they knew something had to be done to get the country out of the crisis at hand. A few had come to defend the status quo and try to stop any changes from being passed. And then there was that core group of conspirators that were preparing to commit treason for the second time...but more about them later...

What was that crisis facing the U.S. in 1787? A few years after the hard-fought Revolution, the country was on the verge of collapse.
  • With no central currency or monetary policy, states printed their own worthless paper money, driving triple-digit inflation.
  • Inflation led to foreclosures on many farms in the largely agricultural nation.
  • Taking matters into their own hands and led by Revolutionary soldier Captain Shays, a gaggle of Massachusetts farmers closed down the courts that were taking their farms, and marched on the arsenal in Springfield, declaring a second revolution. Although they were routed by the state militia, Shays' Rebellion sent a shock wave through the country.
  • The British, Spanish, and French were circling like vultures waiting to pick apart the new nation like road kill.
  • Meanwhile the states were feuding with one another over boundaries, fishing and navigation rights, and trade. Several were preparing to go to war while others considered abandoning the fragile union and going it alone or allying with a foreign power.
  • And what of the Confederation Congress? It was impotent since it could not impose any legislation on the sovereign states and could only beg for money, which was seldom forthcoming. The Articles could not be amended unless all 13 states agreed and that seldom happened.
Back to those treasonous conspirators...James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and a handful of others decided that the time had come to overthrow the Articles of Confederation and establish a new constitution that would have authority over the states. To this end they called the convention, connived to get Congress to approve the session, and enlisted George Washington to come as a representative from Virginia and provide the political cover they needed to create the new constitution.
Of course, the Convention, as one of its first acts, elected Washington to preside over the meeting. And this brings us to our second important date, May 29, 1787.
On this day, the conspirators tipped their hand to the shock of many of the delegates. Edmund Randolph, the Governor of Virginia and host of the Convention, rose to present his opening remarks on the crisis and then read out the Virginia Plan. Authored for the most part by James Madison, it laid out a radical proposal for a republican form of government with representation of the people in a tripartite organization of legislative, executive, and executive branches. These were designed to check and balance one another. This bombshell plan became the agenda for debate that lasted for another four months. But in the end, the Constitution that we know today was written and then ratified by enough states to go into effect.

As the Convention ebbed and flowed, the delegates used many of the techniques we recognize today as strategic planning. In my new book, Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers, 20 contemporary leaders describe how they use these same techniques.

  • Luda Kopeikina, CEO of Noventra, describes how she encourages debate and idea generation.
  • John Zumwalt describes how he uses a common mission to drive successful action at PBSJ just as that quintessential mission statement, the Constitution's Preamble, sets out our country's mission.
  • Howard Putnam, an early CEO at Southwest Airlines, used his planning session to set the floundering company on a new path and unite his team behind it.
  • Michael Howe describes his evolution as a strategic leader who decided to change the face of health care.
  • Alan Levine, now Secretary of Health and Hospitals for Louisiana, relates how he turned a county health care system into a world-class operation delivering high value to patients and lower costs to tax payers.

What can we learn from these remarkable anniversaries?

In times of crisis -- seek bold, break-through solutions -- reject the status quo and your comfort zone -- stick to your mission.

(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein

Check out the book for more tales of strategic leadership both at the Constitutional Convention and in today's successful organizations.

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