A relatively unknown 25-year-old bookseller from Boston with absolutely no military experience changed the course of history. Few people remember the name Henry Knox. He is not often studied in history classes but his bold idea, coupled with George Washington’s faith in him, helped forge the United States.
In December 1775, General Washington and his army were in deep despair and struggling mightily in harsh winter conditions on the outskirts of Boston. The fight for independence from England, which had just barely begun, already seemed hopeless and Washington had communicated that sentiment to the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. Washington’s army was heavily outmatched in terms of manpower and arms. Something had to change to give them a chance.
Henry Knox, a young and inexperienced soldier, had an idea to surround the British with heavy artillery. He recovered abandoned cannons, mortars and other artillery from Fort Ticonderoga more than 300 miles to the north and placed them on the high ground above the city. Washington’s war council scoffed that the idea was preposterous and impossible, but the general was impressed by this young man’s passion and determination and he put Knox in charge of the unlikely mission.
Two months later, Knox and his men returned to Boston with 65 pieces of artillery after hauling them through snow and using makeshift rafts to float down freezing rivers. Once delivered and put in place — in just one night — the British awoke to learn they were at a distinct disadvantage and had little choice but to evacuate immediately. Bolstered by a new confidence, the Continental Congress directed Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to begin crafting articles of American independence.
What can this story teach leaders today? Actually, quite a lot.
Three lessons should resonate. First, trusting and respecting your team members can inspire them to do incredible things. Washington recognized Knox’s passion and trusted him to pursue a bold idea. Leaders today, regardless of the type of organization, can benefit by taking the same approach with their team members. Over the years, I have witnessed countless examples of people stepping up to be their very best to succeed when they are given the confidence to do so and are not afraid of negative consequences or judgment. Giving trust and expecting positive results builds enormous confidence that translates into incredible success.
Second, new ideas should always be encouraged and heard. And the really good ideas should be heartily embraced no matter their source. Knox was completely unknown and had no military experience and little standing to even speak with George Washington. Some of the best ideas I have heard over my career originated from front-line team members or those new to their position.
Fresh perspectives come from all corners of an organization. An openness to ideas spurs innovation, and team members should feel empowered to share ideas freely with their managers or senior leaders. To grow, companies must constantly adapt, and that evolution is stronger if more team members are involved and are encouraged to share their ideas.
And third, enthusiastically support your team. Washington didn’t simply dismiss Knox, because he recognized the young man’s passion and determination. Successful leaders should support their teams with great enthusiasm. Defining a company’s culture around a clear and meaningful purpose that resonates with team members can generate enthusiasm that can make a huge difference in people — and results. We all strive for purpose in our lives, whether it be personal or professional in nature. Leaders demonstrating enthusiasm for that shared purpose will see marked improvements by their team.
Ultimately, these leadership lessons share the same foundational principle that remains as true in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century: Believing in people and allowing them to succeed can be a real game changer.
It seems appropriate that Henry Knox’s birthday is July 25, the same month we celebrate our country’s independence. Our success as a nation and as business enterprises relies on leaders who act with humility and recognize the incredible contributions people can make when you respect and trust them.
Now that you know more about Henry Knox, challenge yourself and your colleagues to think boldly and support one another because that’s usually how the best ideas win.