The Founder's Footprints

Jefferson adams

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I’ve heard people say, “If you want to know about a company, all you need to do is look at the leader” and it certainly is true that companies exhibit the traits of their leaders. But it’s also true that companies exhibit the traits of their founders. In fact, I’d argue that founders leave a longer and more indelible imprint on the DNA of companies than the person who is currently running them.

There are a host of reasons for why that is. To start, the business that the company is in is more often than not determined by the founder. And companies can move into different businesses over time, but most stay fairly rooted in the initial business that they started in. It’s also true that the culture of a company is defined early on and it’s hard to change it. Some companies are technology driven, some are product driven, others are marketing driven, and others are sales driven. That most often comes from the founder and it’s hard for a new leader to change that mindset. Another important reason that the founders often have the greatest impact on the DNA of a company is the entire initial management team is most often built by the founder. That initial selection of people is a critical determinant in the way companies evolve and behave and new management will always struggle to change the behaviors a company exhibits.

And it is also true of countries and nation states. I finished Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air on the flight to Milan and the last chapter is about Joseph Priestley’s impact on Adams and Jefferson. From 1812 until their deaths on the same day in 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged in a continuous debate over the lessons of the American revolution via an exchange of letters back and forth. And central to that debate was the role of science and the explorations of “natural philosophy” in the core beliefs of the new nation. During Adams’ administration, there was a panic about spies and seditious behavior which resulted in the infamous Alien and Sedition acts. Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and the father of modern chemistry who had moved to the US to escape his enemies in England, was among the people who were suspected of seditious acts. Adams ultimately protected Priestley from those who wanted him silenced but that didn’t spare Adams from Priestley’s attacks. Jefferson, on the other hand, was an ally of Priestley’s in the debate and when Jefferson followed Adams into the White House, Priestley went from an enemy of the state to one of its most celebrated members. And the meaning of that whole drama was debated by Adams and Jefferson to their very end.

The fact is the United States was founded by an amazing set of men that included Franklin and Jefferson, two of the greatest friends of science and innovation that have ever lived. And our country has benefited from that fact immensely. The DNA of the United States comes directly from our founding fathers; Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and the rest of them. And their desire to make the big experiments, to push the envelope of what a nation could be is firmly implanted in our psyche a full 233 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson wrote to Priestley the following words shortly after he became President:

As the storm is now subsiding, and the horizon becoming serene, it is pleasant to consider the phenomenon with attention. We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our Republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it new. But the most pleasing novelty is, its so quietly subsiding over such an extent of surface to its true level again. The order and good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic, and I am much better satisfied now of its stability than I was before it was tried.

It’s hard for me to read those words, which were written about the alien and sedition acts and the ensuing crisis, without thinking about 9/11, our country’s reaction to 9/11, and the “recovery from delusion” that it appears we have now made in our election of Barack Obama. Now it’s very high praise (and not yet earned) to compare Obama to Jefferson, my favorite founding father and President, but I am also “much better satisfied of our nation’s stability” and I believe that our nation’s commitment to science, innovation, and what is “new” will pull us out of the serious mess we are in. It’s in our DNA and I am so thankful that it is.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. pfreet

    This as almost a great post. Then you wrote the last paragraph. Comparing “recovery from delusion” and the Obama election is a sure way to insult 50% (47%?) of your readers. This is your blog, so clearly you can write whatever you want. But to be reading a fascinating post about businesses tendency to adopt the culture of their founders, and then be slapped in the face with an unnecessary slam against their political beliefs is just wrong.

    1. ISTJ

      It’s only an insult if you base your personality on your political beliefs (this goes for Mr. Wilson as well)

    2. fredwilson

      this wasn’t a post about how businesses tend to adopt the cultures of their founders, that was the prelude. this was a post about our country, its founders, the politics that existed between the founding fathers, and the fact that some of those political forces remain at work today.

    3. example

      Maybe those people deserve to be insulted?

  2. Chris Dodge

    Interesting that you find Jefferson your favorite Founding Father, given some of his controversies such as being a slave-owner. Personally I like Franklin – what’s not to love about him: an Entrepreneur, Inventor, Scientist, Diplomat, and – to top it off – quite the ladies man. However the long standing relationship (sometimes cordial and sometimes acrimonious) between Adams and Jefferson is a fascinating dialog between two visionaries.

    1. fredwilson

      i said “founding father and president”, if the test were founding father alone, then i might be with you. but even on that test, it would be close. Jefferson had a vision for our country that ran deeper than Franklin’s, i think

  3. ducttape

    Does anyone really recover from delusion – advance perhaps, but delusion is deep seated for many. I too am encouraged however, and look forward to rise of small business as the real recovery driver.

  4. kidmercury

    calling obama a “recovery from delusion” is, regrettably, evidence that we’re plummeting deeper into delusion. the recovery would’ve been ron paul, who is true founding father material, and whose monetary policy and foreign policy is exactly what jefferson prescribed for the US in the constitution, and is precisely what made the US the leading nation in the world at one point in time. as for obama……hahaha. watch and see what his monetary policy and foreign policy does to this country. it’s the exact opposite of what jefferson prescribed.delusion ends with acceptance of the Truth. looks like we’re not yet there, and still need to learn more lessons the hard way. thankfully, 2009 will provide us with those lessons.

  5. DaveGoulden

    The Truth of the environment we operate in as a country is quite a bit different from that of Jefferson’s time. I agree with Fred that Obama has the characteristics of a leader like Jefferson and I believe he sees the Truth of today’s World better than all the other candidates did, including Ron Paul. We are interconnected socially and economically in ways that couldn’t have been conceived by the Founders.

  6. Michael F. Martin

    There is some irony in your comparison of Jefferson to Obama, as Jefferson famously got the most important and divisive issue facing the founders wrong.

    1. fredwilson

      Which would be slavery?

  7. Michael F. Martin

    If you don’t know of him already, I would read a little about Gouverneur Morris. He’s up there with Franklin in my mind. But of course he wasn’t a president either. It’s hard for me to count that against him. I wish that the cultural norm of their generation, which made power something to be accepted rather than grasped, were still the norm in ours.

  8. aarondelcohen

    Fred:Inspiring. And many of us need that. If you haven’t watched it, the HBO John Adams series is unbelievable.

    1. fredwilson

      I saw it. Great stuff

  9. gordon_crovitz

    Great post–we too often forget that the genius of our Founders extended well beyond political philosophy to include a real embrace and practice of technology and the sciences. How many other national cultures can say that? BTW, I’m reading a smart book called “Jefferson vs. the Patent Trolls” by Jeffrey Matsuura. Jefferson’s ideas are highly relevant to today’s debate over intellectual property and how we should define this kind of property in a country whose dominant gene is innovation.

    1. fredwilson

      Steven starts out his book, invention of air, with a quote from jefferson that pretty clearly shows that jefferson was not a fan of protecting scientific discoveries too tightly

  10. S.t

    your fav is President Jefferson?You’re kidding, right?The guy responsible for a massive land grab that, at the time, was thought to be unconstitutional. Almost all the land was occupied by Native American Indians. If you’d have been living during that time, Fred, this would have made you sick to your stomach.Further,– Jefferson? Really? Didn’t Jefferson order the new US Navy to engage in military action in a foreign country for the first time — WITHOUT the consent of CONGRESS — to rescue American hostages held in Islamic Ottoman Libya?’To the Shores of Tripoli’

    1. Brian

      I agree. Jefferson is my least favorite founding father.He was by far the most partisan of the founding fathers constantly stabbing Washington and Adams in the back.Jefferson protested about executive power until he actually had it. Then he loved abusing it.Jefferson was not even involved in the constitutional convention and he hated it.I would say Jefferson was the first modern American politician. A divider not a unite-er.I think WWII is a better comparison to 9/11 than the Alien and Sedition acts. I do not believe (and could be wrong) that we were ever attacked by France. We were actually attacked on 9/11.

  11. example

    Obama won because bush screwed up the economy. If the economy had boomed under bush we’d all be goose-stepping towards fascism. Adams was just as much a founder as Jefferson, after all. And the Alien and Sedition acts were put in place by the same government that ratified the bill of rights. Jefferson was just one voice among many, but he’s venerated today because his views happened to line up with modern American viewpoints.

  12. pangaro

    i agree with comments about the influence of founders and leaders on an organization. it’s also commonly stated that the ‘culture’ of the organization is important, but these points don’t explain why some organizations can transform and others cannot. it is the organization’s openness to the ‘creation of new language’ — that is, it’s ability to understand change, and to converse with a changing environment — that is the fundamental power of a company or government over time. see… for a detailed thesis.