I found this essay the other day and thought that it contained some excellent truths!
If you pick a commencement speech at random, chances are it would exhort us to “be a leader.” Forget, for a moment, that calling on all of us to be leaders falls into the Life of Brian paradox. It’s not surprising that leadership is a major commencement theme: we have been inundated with the importance of leadership from the very moment we started writing our college admissions essays.
Offering Ben Franklin as a prime example of leadership, Penn’s essay prompt detailed that Franklin, among his innumerable accomplishments, “established the Union Fire Company, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, Pennsylvania Hospital, and, of course, the charity school that evolved into the University of Pennsylvania.”
This is based on the common definition of a leader as someone who wields power, influence or renown. When we look to leaders, we look to CEOs of major corporations, political bigwigs, or public intellectuals: the rich, the powerful, or the famous. According to this definition, Franklin was a consummate leader, as his influence still echoes over two centuries later: the country he founded flourishes, his inventions – bifocals, the stove, the electric rod – save and improve lives every day, and we, hundreds of type-A high school students, spent countless hours nervously poring over our essays to gain admission to his university.
This would all be fine, and this speech would be very short, if not for one thing: it’s completely false. Franklin did not exemplify this common view of leadership, and would be rolling over in his grave if he knew his life was used to support it.