Our "Flirtatious Old Man" in Paris

You well know my bias, especially of late, that it’s the nuts and bolts of relationship development and maintenance that make all the difference in outcomes of issues of tactical and strategic importance. Nothing has been of greater importance in American history than acquiring an ally in the Revolutionary War. That essential ally was France, and one can say in this rare instance that the efforts of Ben Franklin in Paris are almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the French on board. In its Independence Day issue, U.S. News & World Report reviewed Franklin’s masterful performance, and a performance it was. The following is extracted from the article “In Paris, Taking the Salons by Storm: How the Canny Ben Franklin Talked the French into Forming a Crucial Alliance”:

“In the same bitter winter of 1776 that Gen. George Washington led his beleaguered troops across the Delaware River to safety, Benjamin Franklin sailed across the Atlantic to Paris to engage in an equally crucial campaign, this one diplomatic. A lot depended on the bespectacled and decidedly unfashionable 70-year-old as he entered the world’s fashion capitol sporting a simple brown suit and a fur cap. … Franklin’s miracle was that armed only with his canny personal charm and reputation as a scientist and philosopher, he was able to cajole a wary French government into lending the fledgling American nation an enormous fortune. … The enduring image of Franklin in Paris tends to be that of a flirtatious old man, too busy visiting the city’s fashionable salons to pursue affairs of state as rigorously as John Adams. When Adams joined Franklin in Paris in 1779, he was scandalized by the late hours and French lifestyle his colleague had adopted, says [Stacy Schiff, in A Great Improvisation]. Adams was clueless that it was through the dropped hints and seemingly offhand remarks at these salons that so much of French diplomacy was conducted. … Like the Beatles arriving in America, Franklin aroused fervor—his face appeared on prints, teacups and even chamber pots. The extraordinary popularity served Franklin’s diplomatic purposes splendidly. Not even King Louis XVI could ignore the enthusiasm that had won over both the nobility and the bourgeoisie. …”

I guess this makes it less surprising that in the current issue of Time, in the cover story on Nelson Mandela’s leadership “secrets,” one was the great man’s smile!

Grand Strategy may be of significant importance to an earthshaking success, but the likes of skill in the salon and a great smile often as not are the key ingredients of that “last 98%,” persuasion and implementation.

Tom Peters posted this on July 17, 2008, in Strategies.
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