How would George Mason make America great again?

Constitutional convention
Public doman/Wikipedia

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a poll of nearly 1,100 federal workers revealed that 27% would considering leaving their jobs if Donald Trump were to be their new boss.

Nearly a year earlier, The Daily Beast cited numerous high-level Pentagon officials who felt the same. Recently, there has been speculation that Federal Reserve Secretary Janet Yellen will resign, though she's denied this.

Fair enough. But history offers a cautionary tale for those who would willingly give up their position at the table rather than work with a man they distrust. In 1787, our government was broke. Laboring under the inefficient Articles of Confederation, we could not pay our debts, our infrastructure was inadequate, and none of the best men wanted to serve in Congress. Sound familiar?

After a series of smaller meetings, states were asked to send delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to address the defects in the Articles of Confederation. In Virginia, leaders like James Madison and George Washington were solidly behind this impulse to give the central government increased powers.

Others were not so sure. Patrick Henry, for one, declared that he smelled a rat, that he anticipated the delegates had big changes in mind, and flatly refused his nomination as one of the delegates to the meeting. George Mason, a man who loved his home state and was leery of any actions that might harm its interests, decided he had better go to Philadelphia to keep an eye on things.

In a leadership parable called "The Way of the Owl," Frank Rivers suggests that if we see a boulder rolling down a hill on a collision course with a village below, we might take one of three actions.

We can -- like Patrick Henry -- stand aside, knowing we cannot stop the boulder. We can jump in front of the boulder, and be flattened for our efforts, like all of the Anti-Federalists who unsuccessfully opposed the ratification of the Constitution at the state level. Or, we can follow the example of George Mason, who got alongside the boulder and gave it a nudge at the right moment. That nudge does not stop the boulder, but it does alter its trajectory and allows us to save the village below.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Mason realized he had serious differences with most of the other delegates. But he stayed in the room throughout the four months of debate. By most accounts, Mason was the fourth-most active participant in the debates and would play a major part shaping the Constitution.

His accomplishments include: the payment of Congress out of national funds (thereby eliminating their dependence on the state legislatures), the citizenship requirements for congressmen, the origination of revenue bills in the House, the possibility of prohibiting the slave trade after 1808, a popularly elected House, the reasonably liberal suffrage requirements, the procedure for overriding presidential vetoes, the ban on an export tax, the requirement of only two-thirds of the states’ approval for ratification, the Connecticut Compromise, and, eventually, the Bill of Rights.

Ultimately, Mason would refuse to sign the final agreement because it continued slavery, as well as his fear that Virginia would suffer under some of the new laws.

We often praise the Patrick Henrys of the world, the folks who explain their nonparticipation in particular change efforts as a principled stance. But perhaps George Mason is the better example both for our national politicians and for leaders in every company and organization in America today. Whether it is economic reform at the highest levels or new policies on leave or telework for your company, by being in the room, you can shape the debate even if you do not ultimately agree with the outcome.

If you cannot stop the boulder rolling down the hill, you can at least position yourself to give it a nudge.

 

Jared Peatman is the founder and president of Four Score Consulting, a company that provides leadership development events at historic sites or through historic metaphors. To learn more about leading a culture change and working with opponents, join us in Philadelphia on Jan. 23-24 for The Philadelphia Experience.

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