Corporate strategy communication advice from Thomas Jefferson

by Tim Darling (email) - July, 2014.

Every few years, as a company achieves (or outlives) its previously set goals, its leaders have to inspire themselves and their team towards the next set of goals and define the path to reach them.

The long-term goal can go by many names such as corporate visioning or a 5-year strategy. Ideally, a story is shared with employees and shareholders to bring them along in the rationale for the new vision in a way that appeals to both a higher mission and logical argument.

In the last 7 years I’ve spent as both a strategic consultant and as a VP of Strategy, one of the best executed example of this communication that I’ve found is a 240 year old document, the American Declaration of Independence.

In the Declaration, author Thomas Jefferson does the following, in this order:
  1. defines a clear succinct vision (independence from Great Britain),
  2. explains why a document supporting the rationale for the vision is needed,
  3. appeals to emotions and a sense of mission by claiming the highest possible summit,
  4. appeals to logic by outlining the reasons that this change is needed,
  5. and begins to outline the implications and next steps - but does not go into great detail
Thomas Jefferson, many years later in his life, outlined what he believed to be his 3 greatest achievements for the inscription that is carved on his gravestone: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom; and father of the University of Virginia”. Interestingly Jefferson’s perspective of his top accomplishments don’t include being the 1st Secretary of State, the 2nd Vice-President, the 3rd President, or the execution of the Louisiana Purchase, which moved the western border of the US to the Rocky Mountains and doubled the size of the country. Of the 3 accomplishments he chose, though, there is little disagreement that authoring the Declaration was a major contribution.

The title clearly defines a strategy/vision: independence from Great Britain.

Jefferson’s first paragraph then outlines why a communication supporting it is needed. Such a communication, was in fact, desperately needed, as some citizens of the colonies and the leaders of the much-needed military ally France, were not all quite ready for such a move:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

His second paragraph starts with his most famous sentence. This paragraph is most telling and its fame is for good reason: to support the strategy/vision of independence, he first claims the higher ground. He evokes God and the “unalienable rights” of man. He declares that the vision of the newly formed United States of America is to provide and protect for its citizens their rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Could any higher ground have been claimed?

Jefferson could have set a goal for the newly formed country to provide something far less ambitious and more tactical. For example, to just provide military protection from foreign powers, at the time, might have been a legitimate near-term plan. In the case of the Founders, there wasn’t an option for a less brave path: it was acknowledged that British rule was not perfect and that rights were violated, but no government is perfect. A new vision for the United States had to be so bold that it would far outweigh a similar risk of the new government also being imperfect; it had to also instill bravery in those who were threatened by Britain’s threats that those who followed it were “alienating their rights” - countered in the claim that, no, indeed, those rights were “unalienable”.

For corporate strategists and visionaries, this is a critical insight. So often companies frame themselves in the current space of their products or in reaction to the one main external impetus that’s causing them to adjust. No reaction to Britain’s policies could have inspired Jefferson (or George Mason, whose Virginia Declaration of Rights was a primary influence) to claim “pursuit of Happiness”. Stepping out of “what is it we do today?” and into “what is the biggest impact we can have on all of man?” is hard to do.

But independent of the fact that Jefferson’s higher ground was incredibly inspiring, the most important point is that he had a higher ground, he took it, and he led with it:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...

Jefferson then begins a bulleted list of the 27 reasons that this decision was arrived at. If there is any flaw in the Declaration to a contemporary reading, it is that 27 items is far too many. A few reasons synthesizing and filtering this longer list may have been more approachable.

To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only...

The final 3 paragraphs then continue the logical argument and wrap up with an indication of the implications of the new stance:

We must... hold them [the British], as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The implications were vast and the Declaration rightly only begins to touch on them. The rest of the work would be done over 11 years later, following the Revolutionary War (itself one of the major outcomes of declaring independence) with the US Constitution. For corporate strategists, this approach is a good guideline as well. The details of the “how?” need time and need to be worked out by a larger team - perhaps all employees. But employees need time first to absorb and internalize the vision. There will be some who get it right away and others who need time over the coming days and weeks to reflect and move at their own speed, from their own starting position.

It is well-known that John Hancock signed the Declaration first and did so boldly and legibly, thus making him a marked target for treason. But Jefferson (as likely many of the others) also signed knowing that supporting the birth of a new country would most likely consume them for the rest of their lives. Perhaps what makes the Declaration so compelling as a vision statement is that its authors were fully committed; strategies drafted by consultants or transient employees should perhaps be viewed with a bit more skepticism in contrast.

Finally, the Declaration was heard many times in many different ways by the citizens of the colonies. It was reprinted and sent on horseback to all 13 states. It was printed in newspapers and read in public gatherings, such from the Old State House balcony in Boston. Congress ordered copies sent to the troops and local committees and councils. Its message was repeatedly heard - which is a good model to follow - although the reactions of effigy burnings and musket firings may not be as desired in a corporate setting.

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All text copyright © 2014 Tim Darling.