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Anecdotes of the 'Founding Fathers'

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Anecdote 1: For when you're announcing revisions to a plan or strategy

In June 1776, the Founding Fathers appointed a committee of five statesmen to draft a statement containing the argument for American Independence. The most gifted writer amongst them was undoubtedly Benjamin Franklin, but he was such a renowned practical joker that the others feared he would somehow sneak a joke into the document, so they decided to delegate the task of drawing up the first draft to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was very proud of his initial draft, and became very upset when the other members of the committee began to hack away at with various revisions and amendments. So in attempt to make him feel better, Benjamin Franklin told him a story about a friend of his, a hatter, who planned to adorn his new hat shop with a sign bearing the words "John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money" above a picture of a hat.

Thompson showed the sign to a group of friends and asked them what they thought. The first remarked that the words "makes and sells hats" made the word "hatter" redundant. The second pointed out that "makes" could also be scratched as few customers would care who made them. The third observed that it was not the custom locally to sell on credit, rendering the words "for ready money" unnecessary.

These changes left a sign reading: "John Thompson sells hats." Then the fourth friend said, "But no one would expect you to give them away,so what is the point of 'sells'?" Finally, someone pointed out that, given the painted picture of a hat, even the word "hats" was unnecessary. So the final sign bore only the words "John Thompson" and the picture of a hat.

This story made Jefferson feel a lot better, and in the end the amendments (about 500 of his words were cut or changed) probably improved what he had written ('We hold these truths to be self-evident' replaced Jefferson's original 'We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,' for example), the result being the Declaration of Independence, one of the most famous testaments to democracy in history.

The moral of the story is that revisions can often make something better than the original.

And I think that's true with the revisions to our strategy that we are announcing today . . . . .

Anecdote 2: The Crossing of the Delaware - for when you need one final push to hit your year-end targets/goals

In early December 1776, American morale was very low. The British had taken New York and driven the Americans across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. George Washington's Continental Army had almost disintegrated. The enlistment periods of many men had ended, some had accepted amnesty from the British, and many more had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost. One more victory for the redcoats and the pressure on Congress to negotiate a settlement may have been irresistible.

This was when Thomas Paine wrote his famous words, "These are the times that try men's souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

But Washington was neither a summer soldier nor a sunshine patriot. He decided on one final attack before the year was out.

On Christmas night, in appalling sleet and snow, dodging floating ice in small boats, he re crossed the Delaware with 2,400 men in a surprise attack on the town of Trenton, catching the enemy completely by surprise. About 100 were killed and wounded and 1,000 taken prisoner. American casualties were reported at 5.

The battle had consequences out of all proportion to its size, galvanizing the colonial effort and overturning the psychological dominance the British had established.

In war, the phrase 'it ain't over 'til it's over' is more than just a cliche. Often initial victories are squandered and an enemy snatches unexpected victory from the jaws of defeat.

And the same is true in business. As we enter the final month of the year, our targets are within reach. We've pulled back a big deficit and we can hit them. They are achievable. It can be done. But it will require a monumental effort from all of you right up until the closing seconds of the month . . . .

Anecdote 3: For when you've just won a major battle with a much bigger competitor

During the War of Independence, George Washington was staying in an inn in Boston with General Howe and got into conversation with a young girl. "You've seen the soldiers on both sides," he said. "Which ones did you like best?"

The girl thought for a moment before replying that she liked the redcoats best. Washington laughed and said, "Yes, the redcoats do look the best, but it takes the ragged boys to do the fighting."

What Washington was saying was that the important thing in a fight isn't the superficialities of appearance, but what's inside here ... the heart ... that counts. It's like the old saying, 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight that's important, it's the size of the fight in the dog.'

And when I look at what you've achieved over the past 12 months I know exactly what he meant. Competitor X is bigger than us. They have deeper pockets. They have bigger advertising budgets. And so to the untrained eye, yes - they may 'look better,' and are definitely the bigger dog in the fight.

But when I think about how we've sent them packing with their tails between their legs, I know which dog had the bigger fight in it's heart. Like Washington's 'ragged boys,' the civilian amateurs who once sent the military professionals of the eighteenth century's biggest superpower packing, it was you who did the real fighting.

Anecdote 4: For when your competition has done something unexpected

After the War of Independence, when the Founding Fathers gathered together to discuss the constitution and what powers Congress should have. When discussing their power to raise an army, one perhaps over-idealistic delegate proposed that the new Republic's standing army should never exceed more than 5,000 men at any one time.

As the chairman of the convention, George Washington wasn't allowed to join in the debate, but whispered to a colleague that perhaps there should be a clause in the constitution forbidding any foreign power from invading the United States with more than 3,000 troops.

As an experienced soldier, what Washington knew, was that while you can control what you are going to do, you can't control what the competition is going to do. And we've learned that to our cost in the last couple of months .......

Anecdote 5: For when you (or the company) have had a horrendous two weeks

Because the actual solar year (which is the time required for the earth to complete an orbit around the sun) is some 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than the year of 365 1/4 days introduced by Julius Caesar to formulate the Julian calendar, formal dates gradually fell out of synch with the natural seasons over the centuries so that by the sixteenth century the calendar was out by 11 days.

So in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that October 4th would simply be followed by October 15th! And to prevent another discrepancy (of 11 minutes a year), he decided to leave out leap days in years beginning new centuries unless they were divisible by 400.

Despite its apparent complexity, the new system worked fine, but because the reform had come from Rome, Protestant England and the American colonies refused to go along, until, In 1752, they finally made the change, skipping ten days in September.

But the change didn't go smoothly. People demanded their full wages for the 'lost' 11 days, and there were riots in the street because many people thought their lives had actually been shortened by 11 days.

But Benjamin Franklin, writing in his Almanac told his readers they should be grateful. He wrote,

"Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at such a deduction of days, nor regret as for the loss of so much time, but take this for your consolation. For what an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow to lie down in Peace on the second of this month and not perhaps awake till the morning of the fourteenth."

To be able to go to bed one night and not wake up again until two weeks later? I'd pay good money to have been able to do that over the past fortnight ........

(As an aside, the American shooting team won gold in the 1908 Olympics because their Russian opponents failed to turn up on the appointed day. It turns out that they were still using the old calendar, which by now differed from the revised one by about two weeks. They didn't convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1917.)

Anecdote 6: For when you want to honor someone you are replacing

Shortly after replacing Benjamin Franklin as the American ambassador in Paris, Thomas Jefferson was visited by the French minister for foreign affairs. "Monsieur Jefferson," he said. "I understand that you are to replace Monsieur Franklin." Jefferson replied, "I succeed Mr. Franklin; nobody could replace him."

And I understand exactly how he felt, because that's how I feel about succeeding Jim as CEO . . . .

Anecdote 7: The Battle of Trenton - for when you've underestimated the competition or the competition is complacent and you're about to attack them

(NB: This takes the same incidents decribed in anecdote 2, i.e. the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton, but 'repackages' them in a different way, in order to achieve a different objective)

By December 1776 the American revolt was on its last legs. George Washington had abandoned New York and retreated to Philadelphia, and assuming there'd be no more fighting that winter the British commander Sir William Howe had ordered his troops into winter quarters.

But needing a victory to restore confidence, Washington decided to cross the partly frozen River Delaware and attack the city of Trenton. The city was occupied by a regiment of German mercenaries, Hessians commanded by Johann Gottlieb Gall, an obstinate man of limited intelligence who was convinced the American rebels were no match for his men. He'd refused to build earthworks to fortify the city of Trenton, Massachusetts, saying he only needed bayonets as a defense.

On Xmas Eve he received a letter from an American loyalist warning him of the attack, but he was too busy drinking and didn't read it. Big mistake. His second mistake was 2 days later, when he refused to get out of bed to listen to an officer who had heard shots.

When he eventually did get up, hungover from his Xmas celebrations, his first act - believe it or not - was to summon the regimental band. And to the sound of fife and drum, his half-dressed, half-awake, half-sober Hessians were shot down in droves. Shortly afterwards he was shot himself and almost 1,000 of his men surrendered to the rebels. American casualties were reported at 5.

General Howe was horrified. He said he couldn't believe that "three old established regiments of a people who make war a profession should lay down their arms to a ragged and undisciplined militia."

Everything was on the Hessians' side. Experience, discipline, training. But Johann Rall made made one big mistake - over confidence. And that was enough. Corporate graveyards are littered with the bones of companies who were complacent and thought they couldn't be beaten. Until someone came along who thought otherwise. Competitor X has been complacent about its market leadership for years. And we are about to teach them the error of their ways . . . . . . . . .

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