Leadership Lessons from Paul Revere

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was 237 years ago today that Paul Revere mounted his horse and took the ride that made him famous. For years, the American colonists had been trying to shrug off the rules and heavy taxes imposed by the British. Thanks to incidents such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, tensions between the American militia and British occupational forces had reached a boiling point. Revere and other members of the “Mechanics” served as couriers, relaying information between leaders of the American resistance in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York.

Revere and his colleagues kept careful watch over the movements of the British, looking for signs that further oppression, in the form of military action, was imminent. When word came that British troops were advancing from Boston to Lexington with the intent of arresting John Hancock and Samuel Adams, Revere was sent to spread the word – alerting the colonial militias along the way. The ride was successful and set the stage for the American Revolution.

The success of Paul Revere’s mission hinged on the ability to communicate quickly and effectively in a time of crisis. Sound familiar? In today’s business environment, where news travels around the world in an instant, timely and effective communication is critical. Here are three lessons in communication I feel we can learn from this historic event.

1. Be prepared to communicate. The time to plan your communication strategy is before a crisis hits, not in the heat of the moment. Revere and others had been watching the British for some time. They knew their own vulnerabilities and spent some time thinking like the enemy. By anticipating likely scenarios, they were able to develop response plans – including what and how to communicate.

Several months earlier, the colonists had been caught by surprise when British soldiers marched on the Powder House, removing a cache of gunpowder. The reaction was widespread panic and leaders established a series of communication strategies to prevent this type of unanticipated movement from happening again. When the time came to act, Revere and his companions knew exactly what to do. No time was wasted figuring out what needed to be said or who would deliver the message. Everything had been determined in advance.

2. Keep the message simple. Popular belief holds that Revere rode through the countryside shouting “the British are coming!” While this is false (British troops were everywhere and secrecy was critical to ensure the message reached as many people as possible), his actual message was just as simple. Going door-to-door, Revere and the other riders passed the message “The Regulars are coming out.”

This simple message conveyed everything a local militiaman needed to know. The British troops – Regulars – were on the move. Gather your weapons and prepare to defend your family, your land, and your property. The simplicity of the message also meant that it could easily be passed from town to town. A more complicated description of the British movements could easily have been confused resulting in misinformation and disorganization.

3. Plan multiple ways to communicate. Boston was the hotbed of British activity. Revere knew that, should events escalate quickly, he might not be able to escape the city to pass the word along. So another rider, William Dawes, also carried the message; leaving Boston by a different route. Having more than one communicator increased the chances that the message would get through. And should both manage to deliver their message, as was the case, communication would be achieved even more rapidly.

In addition, Revere also planned for an alternate method of communication should no one be able to leave Boston. He had arranged for a simple set of signals to alert the “Sons of Liberty” located across the Charles River to any British movement. He knew that the troops would either advance “by land,” marching to the west and then north toward Lexington, or “by sea,” crossing the Charles River in order to shorten their march. Once the British intentions became clear, Revere ordered two lanterns hung in the bell-tower of Christ Church in Boston.

Effective communication is difficult under any circumstance. Communicating in a time of crisis, when others are counting on swift and accurate information is even harder. But by preparing in advance, you can be ready to meet the challenge – just like Paul Revere.

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