Founding Fathers and Business Education

Ilya Breyman
Jul 4, 2018 · 3 min read
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Photo by Vladimir Solomyani on Unsplash

The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4th, 1776, marked the launch of one of the greatest startups in history. As any startup, to be successful, the new nation required its leaders to be ready to constantly learn and adapt. It’s not surprising that many of the Founding Fathers were avid learners and educators, who founded, funded, and turned around universities.

Studying their “startup” experience can offer valuable lessons in leadership, decision making, negotiations, project management, social impact, and other management disciplines. In fact, there are a number of case studies used in business schools that deal with events that transpired after the Independence.

Tom Nicholas, who studies R&D, entrepreneurship, and venture capital at HBS, co-authored “George Washington and the Foundations of American Democracy” in 2015, in which the first President is portrayed as a political and economic entrepreneur.

Another HBS professor, Gautam Mukunda, is the author of the 2012 book “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” in which he discusses what makes a leader indispensable or replaceable. Shockingly, Thomas Jefferson, the author (well, technically, one of the five authors who formed the drafting committee) of the Declaration of Independence, did not make the cut: Mukunda believes, someone like Madison or Adams would have acted in a similar fashion and achieved the same success in his stead. Jefferson’s fans shouldn’t be upset though — according to the author, Churchill was also replaceable.

Thomas Cross, formerly of Darden at the University of Virginia and who still teaches in the schools custom program for the US Military, co-authored a two-part case study on James Madison. The fourth President was not a stereotypical — an introvert and a poor orator, he nonetheless was a brilliant scholar and a great leader who was instrumental in setting up an entirely new form of federal government as the result of the 1787 Convention. “James Madison and ‘the Business of May Next’” helps explore how leadership is about action, rather than possessing certain traits.

The former dean of Darden, Robert Burner, who also taught at Columbia, INSEAD and IESE and is a leading financial economist, wrote a series of cases on Alexander Hamilton, the founder of American financial system. Published in the end of 2017, they explore the topics of government interventions, pros and cons of central banking, and, most importantly for the general management audience, policy entrepreneurship. Hopefully, after the success of Hamilton: the Musical (which by the way earned two case studies in 2016 — one by Meghan Murray at Darden and the other by Anita Elberse at HBS) more cases will be written about this extraordinary political entrepreneur. Ron Chernow’s book alone offers plenty of material to start with.

This list would be incomplete if it didn’t mention Benjamin Franklin, who famously said: “If you can’t attribute a quote to someone, it is either Shakespeare’s, Einstein’s or mine.” Even though we couldn’t find a case study, business education is in debt to Dr. Franklin. A self-taught polymath and entrepreneur, he had a vision for the University of Pennsylvania to be a practical school. The Wharton School, which became the first business school in the US in 1881 (27 years before HBS — sorry, Harvard!), continues his vision and tradition. His Autobiography was one of the first “personal secret for success” books that are so popular today and its key element was the list of 13 virtues, which are still relevant and can be recognized in impact initiatives and corporate social responsibility brochures of modern corporations.

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