Thursday will be the 243rd anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress meeting at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 4th, 1776. This document announced that the thirteen American colonies, then at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, regarded themselves as thirteen newly independent sovereign states, no longer under British rule, and instead in a new nation, the United States of America.
Living in Lexington, MA, I see signs of this time all around me. I live less than a mile from the road Paul Revere took with William Dawes and Samuel Prescott on their ride from Lexington to Concord. And, this past Sunday I worshipped, as I usually do, at Park Street Church in downtown Boston. This historic church is positioned between the Boston Common, this nation’s oldest public park, and the Granary Burying Ground. In April 1775, British soldiers were encamped on the Common before marching off to Concord where the rebels, as they were then called, had stockpiled weapons and gunpowder. Paul Revere and others from those revolutionary days are buried in the Granary Burying Ground. And, during the 1812 war with Great Britain over Britain’s attempts to restrict U.S. trade, gunpowder was stored in the church’s crypt.
Everyone knows of Paul Revere’s ride, if not from history, from the Longfellow poem, “The Ride of Paul Revere.”1 (See David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride2 for a more accurate historical account of the ride.) However, almost no one knows about the intricate web of relationships3,4 that under lay the ride’s success. Let’s explore that web and then draw from the expanded story some lessons on relationships.
But, first, we need to say a few words about the beginning. Starting around 1765, colonists rejected the authority of the British Parliament to tax them. Protests escalated with events like the “Boston Tea Party” in 1773 when a shipment of taxed tea was destroyed. This resulted in punitive laws as well as the local assembly being dissolved, the port of Boston closed, and private citizens were forced to provide lodging for British soldiers in their homes. During this time Paul Revere was one of the “express riders” spreading the news from town to town about the British activities.
On April 14, 1775, General Thomas Gage, military governor of Massachusetts received an order from England to disarm the rebels, seize their arms (stored in Concord and elsewhere), and imprison the rebellion’s leaders, especially Samuel Adams and John Hancock. John Warren, a leader of the Sons of Liberty (as well as Continental Army surgeon and later founder of the Harvard Medical School), learned of this through his network of informants and late in the evening of April 18, told Revere and William Dawes that the king’s troops were about to embark in boats from Boston to Cambridge and then march along the road to Lexington and Concord.
Revere first had the Christ Church (now the Old North Church) sexton hang two lanterns in the steeple to alert colonists in Charlestown as to the troop movements and then crossed the mouth of the Charles River by rowboat to Charlestown. There, he borrowed a horse, headed off to Lexington and Concord alarming folks in the houses and villages he passed telling them that the “regulars” were coming. Meanwhile, Dawes proceeded by land crossing the Charles River near Harvard College and also rode on to Lexington. He arrived at Lexington shortly after Revere. As a result of these rides more than 40 other express riders spread out to inform other towns and villages to muster their militias as more than 700 “regulars” were leaving Boston with possible hostile intentions. Between these riders and a system of bells, drums, bonfires, and alarm guns, it’s said that most people within 25 miles of Boston were aware of the army’s movements while they were still unloading their boats in Cambridge.
You know the result. In Lexington, the local militia met the British “regulars” march. Being outnumbered the militia fell back, and the “regulars” continued their march to Concord. There, additional militias who continued to arrive from neighboring towns ultimately rebuffed the regulars who returned under heavy fire to the safety of Charlestown in a tactical withdrawal. By the morning of April 20th, Boston was surrounded by a militia army of over 15,000 which had arrived from throughout New England, and the Revolutionary War had begun.
So, the question is how did so few people – Warren, Revere, and Dawes – manage to unleash such a coordinated rebuff of the British forces? The answer: Through the network of relationships that they had developed and maintained.
Years earlier in response to the tightening of British rule, social groups of colonists began to take on a political role. These groups included the Freemasons of St. Andrew’s Lodge, the Loyal Nine (the nucleus of the Sons of Liberty, a secret society formed to protect the rights of colonists and fight taxation by the British government), the North End Caucus, the (secret) Long Room Club, and the Committee of Correspondence, to name just a few key ones. For the most part, members of each group came from different segments of society. For example, over half of the Long Room Club were Harvard graduates; St. Andrews Lodge members were primarily artisans, retailers, and men from the sea-going trades; the Sons of Liberty was a social club of printers, distillers, shopkeepers, men of building trades; etc. Members of different groups had little in common with each other except for a disdain for British rule. There was one other thing, however. Almost all the 137 individual members of these five groups were members of only one group except for 19 individuals. Joseph Warren was a member of four of these five groups; Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Church were each members of three; and 14 other individuals were each members of two groups. These individuals, and in particular Warren, Revere, Samuel Adams, and Church, by their participation and leadership in multiple groups, constituted bridges that brought the groups and their members together, and focused them on a common objective. (See Han3 and Healy.4)
So, what can we learn from this story?
Relationships are really the key. These four men, Warren, Revere, Samuel Adams, and Church, were all well-known and had relationships with all the early players leading up to the Revolutionary War. They trusted each other and were widely trusted. And, because of this trust, they served as valuable “bridges” between the five key social/political groups in Boston at that time and the members of those groups.
One of the results of the trust that flows from relationships is quick decision making and implementation. These four individuals gathered information, evaluated it, made decisions, and spread the word to the key groups and then throughout the countryside. As noted above, most of the people living within 25 miles of Boston had been notified that British troops were leaving Boston before those troops had made it across the Charles River by boat to Cambridge. And, further, that by the next dawn Boston was surrounded by a militia army of over 15,000.
I hope that the example from these historical events leads you to examine the status of your relationship with each of the members of your team. And, if you have managers reporting to you, to ask yourself about the status of your relationship with each of them? And further, to ask about the status of those managers’ relationships with each of their team members? And, still further, to ask about your relationships with your key clients? You see where I’m going here. Having a set of broad solid relationships is the key to getting work done and done well. And, the span of the relationships you and your teams have defines the scope of the potential impact that you will have in your organization.
These strong relationships form bridges to other parts of your organization and to other organizations across your institution. These bridges will significantly multiply your impact. Note that Warren, Revere, Samuel Adams, and Church were members and leaders in all five of the major Boston social, and now resistance, groups. This enabled them to spread information and ideas, and gain commitments and action broadly.
As you think about your position in your organization and your institution, you may find it helpful to identify your modern-day Warrens, Reveres, Samuel Adams, and Churches? To identify your express riders? To ask who your militias are? If indeed major change is in front of you, you need to examine what you doing now to lay the foundation and to be able to lead it to success? If the time is now, are you stepping forward? The future belongs to those who create it.
I hope that you have a wonderful 4th of July celebration later this week and that you make this and the coming weeks truly great ones for you and your team.
. . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Ride of Paul Revere.
- David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Shin-Kap Han, The Other Ride of Paul Revere: The Brokerage Role in the Making of the American Revolution.
- Kieran Healy, Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading on July 5, 2016.