Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin

ASIN: B000JMLMXI, Publisher: Public Domain Books (July 1, 1994)
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*

What could a book written in 1788 possibly have to offer that might improve governance by directors of modern day corporations?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • The virtue of writing with ‘decent plainness and manly freedom’: Much current management reporting, PR spin and advertising copy would fail to pass muster when assessed by this criterion. Franklin contends that writing clear and simple prose with no attempt to gloss over the unpalatable truth is both better received and more persuasive. Writers of board papers would do well to take note of this.
  • Lack of formal education is not a disqualification if the lack is supplanted by a willingness to learn, an inquiring mind, recognition of one’s own weakness and good practical experience gained through hard work. Lack of education with the absence of those factors is a recipe, but not an excuse, for disaster.
  • Faults should be admitted and, wherever possible, rectified. The book makes much of ‘three great errata’ which Franklin committed in his early years and of his attempts to rectify these.
  • Avoid passing off opinion as fact; far from giving the appearance of knowledge such behaviour will only serve to raise doubt as to your sagacity and to stimulate opposition to your planned course of action.
  • Do not drink alcohol and then expect to work well.
  • It is useless to recommend people to adhere to high standards without giving them the education and means to do so. Franklin likens this to exhorting the poor to keep their families well fed, clean and educated without providing them the financial wherewithal for such.
  • Listen courteously to argument and, unless necessary, to not take a contrarian viewpoint.
  • Test you ideas out on people whose judgement you trust before you put them into practice or advance them in argument.
  • Before entering into a business partnership write down exactly who will do what and for what recompense. Be as detailed as possible and consider every eventuality.
  • Provide prompt, accurate accounts to business partners and shareholders and pay your dividends in full and on time.
  • Teach young women to read and render company accounts as this is likely to be more useful to them than singing or playing an instrument.
  • Stay fit and healthy, set aside sufficient time for daily exercise and eat in moderation. There are some feats that would not be possible today (such as swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriars along the Thames) yet which are still impressive by current standards of health and fitness even given the present day advances in nutrition and sports physiology.
  • Do not make advances to other people’s wives, especially those of your friends. This could usefully be extended into modern day with an exhortation for directors never to assault staff or hotel workers.
  • Give back to society through civil service and through work on the boards of not-for-profit organisations; if there is no not-for-profit organisation doing what you want to see done, start one yourself.
  • Do not do business with people whom you do not trust.

Of course much has changed since the book was written in1788 and even more since the end of the narrative circa 1757. It is now unlikely that any respectable business would take on staff at the age of ten years; even as apprentices. The size of boards has decreased and the professionalism required of directors has increased. Representative boards are now rare outside the government sector (and even there the advantages of skills based boards with diversity appear to be winning out against pure representation). The idea that corporate trustees, governors or directors should remain in their posts until their demise has very little currency although, with increases in longevity, physical and mental health, it is now likely that the ‘age of legislated senility’ beyond which directors are deemed unfit to serve is likely to be raised.

On the whole; this is a book as much about character as about any one character. Although the narrative ends before many of the events that propelled Franklin to lasting fame occurred, it is obvious that the seeds of greatness were sown early and well-tended in these formative years. This is an engaging book for anyone who aspires to greatness and is particularly recommended for family business and start-ups.

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* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Presenting to Boards", "Dilemmas, Dilemmas: practical case studies for company directors'", "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.

Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards