5 personal leadership lessons from Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a man who got things done. He “was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and in many ways was “the First American”. A renowned polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.” 

To illustrate just how much he got done, consider the following list of inventions and achievements: 

  • Invented the lightning rod 
  • Invented bifocals
  • Invented the Franklin stove
  • One of the first maps of the Gulf Stream
  • Made numerous electricity discoveries
  • Founded first fire insurance company in America
  • Established first fire department in Philadelphia
  • Established first public circulation library in America
  • First postmaster general of the United States
  • All this whilst running a printing business!

Certainly an impressive list of achievements! 

At this point, I’m sure you may be asking yourself, how did one person manage to accomplish so much? 

The biggest challenge today is leading ourselves first. Franklin had the same challenge but found that leading himself was a lot easier with the right habits and tools. 

The biggest lesson I learnt from the life of Benjamin Franklin was the importance of working to develop daily habits and routines that make for success. Franklin developed a system that enabled him to gain many of the skills that eventually made him successful.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle 

Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learnt from studying his remarkable life:

1. Treat time as your scarcest resource. Period.

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of time. Whilst we all have different skills, talents and resources, we all have the same 24 hours every day. What matters is how effectively we use our allocated 24 hours. Time is our scarcest resource, and using it wisely requires careful consideration. 

The scarcity of time is a call to action for all men of purpose.

Whilst recognising that time is scarce is a good start, devising a way to effectively use our time is quite a different matter. Making effective use of time is not about working hard. It’s about knowing how to invest your time. This was something that Franklin understood deeply. So, he developed a system to help him make the best use of his time. 

In this post, we’re going to explore his system and how it can help us today in making better use of our time. 

2. Create purposeful habits and routines

Benjamin Franklin thought deeply about the kind of man he wanted to become. His overall goal was to achieve “moral perfection.” So, at the age of 20 (in 1726), he created a list of 13 virtues that defined the kind of man he wanted to become. In his autobiography, he listed his 13 virtues as follows: 

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.” 
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” 
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” 
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” 
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.” 
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” 
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.” 
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.” 
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” 
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.” 
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” 
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” 
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

An impressive list of virtues. But, he didn’t stop there. He developed a system to help him make these virtues a part of his daily life. The system consisted of a 13 week plan — supported by a scorecard and a daily schedule — to help him stay focused and on track. 

A leader’s daily struggle is remaining focused on their most important things. The challenge? How do you stay focused on what’s most important? Like many of us, Benjamin Franklin found it difficult to stay focused.

To help him stay focused Franklin developed a simple scorecard. It also allowed him to keep track of the progress he was making towards his goals. Illustrated below is one of Franklin’s actual scorecards.

Franklin knew he could not work on all 13 virtues at the same time. So, he decided to focus on one virtue each week. He thought that if he focused on one virtue, it would quickly become a habit. He then could move on to the next virtue the following week, and so on. 

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Using a little book consisting of 13 scorecards — one for each virtue — each week he tracked the number of offences he made against that week’s virtue. Every evening he would review his day using a scorecard. He would record each fault he committed for that week’s virtue by placing a black mark on the scorecard. In this way, he could work on improving himself, making fewer and fewer mistakes each day, becoming better and better every year. 

3. Keep a daily schedule

“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” — Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin knew the importance of doing the right things at the right time. To ensure he focused on the right things at the right time, he developed a detailed daily schedule. He structured his days into routines that allowed him to be productive whilst focusing on what was most important. 

Illustrated below is Benjamin Franklin’s actual daily schedule; it’s how he lived his life every day. 

Having a daily schedule on a single page provides the perspective needed to ensure you’re focused on doing the right things at the right time. 

An important benefit of such a daily schedule is that it helps you decide the best times of the day for doing different kinds of tasks. This helps you focus on doing the right things at the right time. It assists in managing work and interruptions, knowing that each kind of work has its place in your day. 

If it was important to Benjamin Franklin, he included it as part of his schedule. 

Notice how his schedule was well thought out and addressed all the different areas in his life: preparation, work, social, rest, meals, reading, learning and reflection – all in all, a well balanced day. 

A reliable daily schedule and routine provides leaders with the perspective and structure needed to get the right things done at the right time. 

4. Make your mornings count

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.” — Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin placed a lot of value on being organised. 

As you will have experienced, if you arrive at work unprepared, you’ll quickly become caught up in the minutiae of the day — overrun with emergencies and conflicting priorities. As you get caught up in day-to-day tasks, you lose focus, forgetting what’s important. Do this for too long, and soon, days run into weeks, weeks into months, and you’re failing to make any meaningful progress. 

To prevent this, Benjamin Franklin was up every day at 5 a.m. and used this time to prioritise what he wanted to accomplish that day. He did this by asking himself, “hat shall I do this day?.” 

Rather than waking up and going straight to work, he would take time to think about what to focus on for the day. By the time he started working at 8 a.m., he had eaten breakfast and prepared for the day’s work. A regular morning routine that helps you keep focused is essential for purposeful leadership. 

This simple habit effectively ensured that Franklin had a three-hour head start over everyone else. What you do from the time you wake up until you begin to work can make or break your day. 

Consider developing a morning routine that prepares you for your day. Wake up early, and before you do anything else, take time to plan your day. 

5. End your day well

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” ― Benjamin Franklin

The last component of Benjamin Franklin’s system is to end the day well. The end of the day was a time that Franklin used to review his day. He would make notes, complete his scorecard and reflect on his progress. 

The focus of his reflection at the end of the day was on what good he did. He would ask himself, “What good have I done today?” This was in support of his goal to achieve moral perfection and to live as a virtuous human being. He, therefore, focused on what he did that day in contribution to his goal; hence the question, “What good have I done today?.” 

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of getting a full 7 hours of sleep! 

Your turn

I trust that these 5 practices from the life of Benjamin Franklin have inspired you; that they have caused you to reflect on your own personal leadership; and that they have inspired you to think about developing a set of habits and routines that support your success as a leader. 

Benjamin Franklin is an outstanding example of what can be achieved when you strive to live a purposeful and productive life. The life of Benjamin Franklin is a an example of how leading yourself first is the foundation of effective leadership. 

“Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.” ― Benjamin Franklin