Filmmaker Ken Burns on Lessons in Innovation and Collaboration
As the acclaimed documentarian releases a new two-part PBS series about Ben Franklin, he describes how the U.S. founding father transformed himself from teen runaway to newspaperman, then inventor, then political elder. He explains what current leaders can learn from how Franklin approached business, scientific discovery, and his fellow nation-builders. Ken Burns, whose films have covered everything from the Civil War to baseball, also shares insights on how he and his teammates get their own groundbreaking work done.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
We get most of our business and career advice today from forward-looking contemporaries, the latest innovator in business or academic with interesting research, but we also know that we can find lessons in leadership and even innovation from people who lived long ago.
MANDY PATINKIN: Histories of lives are seldom entertaining, unless they contain something either admirable or exemplar.
I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon. Since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known 100 years hence.
Whether I have been doing good or mischief is for time to discover.
ALISON BEARD: Those are the words of Ben Franklin, voiced by Mandy Patinkin. They bookend a new two-part PBS series on the 18th century American leader. It’s from our guest today, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns. Burns has directed or produced more than 40 films, and his latest, out this week, chronicles the life of Franklin, a businessman, inventor, and U.S. founding father. We’re going to talk about Franklin’s push for continuous improvement, whether it was making himself or the tools and technologies at the time, or his young country better.
I’m also going to ask Burns how he applies some of the same strategies in his own award-winning work and career. Ken Burns, welcome.
KEN BURNS: Thank you, Alison. I’m so happy to be with you.
ALISON BEARD: So why Franklin, because he was good or made mischief, or a little bit of both?
KEN BURNS: Well, we made films not about stuff we already know about, but stuff we want to know about, and Franklin is undoubtedly the greatest American writer of the 18th century and he is undoubtedly the greatest American personality of that century, and he is so much more than what comes down to us. He is on the $100 bill and he’s on the $100 bill for a very good reason, in that he represents American striving and lifting yourself up by your bootstraps, and getting ahead and doing for self, and being successful, but he never ever held a patent on anything that he invented. He was always into the civic relationship, so he was about me, but he was also about us. More than anything else, he was a life that spanned the 18th century. He is curious about everything, about who he is, about what he’s made of, about what he believes, what his faith is, the way nature works, how it can be improved, the way human beings interact.
As your introduction suggests, we do tend to focus on the people today that we think are inspirational or have offered something new, but as the Bible said, there’s nothing new under the sun, and Franklin represents a kind of an epitome of modernness, even though he comes to us in the powdered wig period, and that’s the most interesting thing to us, is just how contemporary he is. He’s the greatest diplomat in American history. He is an Isaac Newton level scientist. He was rich and retired at an early age. He’s the oldest of all the so-called founding fathers.
His son was older than Jefferson and Madison, and I think Adams. You have a sense of him as coming from a different place, and yet being an absolute embodiment of the enlightenment, which still, despite all of the assaults on it since, that is to say the notion of liberal and democratic societies, he is the exemplar for his time and for ours as well.
ALISON BEARD: Forget all that buzz about Alexander Hamilton. Apologies to Lin-Manuel. Franklin’s really the guy.
KEN BURNS: I mean, I think if you’re going to say … The guy is Washington. Nothing happens without him, and yet there’s an opacity, but Franklin’s accessible. He’s funny. He’s a great writer.
He’s interested in compromise. He’s forging these things that are going on from the very, very early age, and he’s improving. This is a guy who held people, household slaves and never, as far as we can tell, set any of them free, but who evolves to the point where he starts a school for African-American kids in the United States, is stunned by seeing how equal they are to white kids in terms of learning, and then becomes an abolitionist in the last sort of deed of his life, is proposing to the newly formed United States government that it abolished slavery, which of course, went nowhere, but at least shows in the arc of his life, the arc of the life that we, as Americans have to not just embrace, but we have to take responsibility for.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. What really did strike me as I watched the film was that theme of self-improvement. You see it in how he wanted the U.S. to develop into a stronger and more just nation, but then also, in his own life, and then in his work as an inventor. He was trying to improve sort of all the everyday things that were needed for people to live better lives, everything from the firebox stove to the flexible catheter. Let’s just peel apart each of those pieces of him, innovator, businessman, political leader. First, what lessons can we take away from how he went about innovating centuries ago?
KEN BURNS: Well, I think it’s the same method that we apply today. It’s a scientific one. It’s about observation. It’s about seeing yourself as connected to nature, not above it. Even as a kid in Boston, before he runs away, he’s got an indentured servitude to his older brother, and he’s so far and away ahead of him.
He’s under a pen name. He’s submitting stuff to his brother’s newspaper, which makes the newspaper very popular, but also makes his brother jealous, but before that, he’s inventing these sort of what we’d call kind of a parasail, being able to pull across, upon. He invents some flippers. He’s constantly seeking what can be useful in society, so all of those things you’re talking about are hugely important. He understands that hundreds of people a year are being killed by lightning, bell ringers in churches particularly, and he pursues his experiments in electricity. It’s not that the lightning had to strike the kite, and then he had to get shocked, but it’s a much more complicated, much more interesting thing that he does.
I think just the practical stuff of the stove, he’s figuring out how to invent town lights, so with replaceable panes, the police force, a volunteer fire department, schools, philosophical societies, clubs for conversation, the University of Pennsylvania, there’s sort of no end to it, and then you could also say, Alison, that he invented the United States of America, right? I mean, decades before our revolution, he had studied native, indigenous populations, the Iroquois Confederation’s Haudenosaunee, which was a kind of way of dealing with the different needs of different tribes, and he suddenly thought, having been a kind of person who understood a little bit about the disparate interests of the various colonies from the most Southern in Georgia, starting off as a penal colony to the most Northern, my colony, New Hampshire, that they’re different, but there was something common that we held, and so he proposed an Albany Plan of Union. He drew a picture of a segmented, chopped up snake, which said, “Join or Die.” People just thought this was way too radical, got completely ignored. Several decades later, three decades later, it’s adopted as a war cry of the revolution, so he’s first to perceive the idea of an American.
He’s on the committee that’s drafting a Declaration of Independence. He’s been away in England for an awful long time, but because of his great writing, it’s thought there ought to be some. John Adams is on it, few other people, and of course, the main author is Thomas Jefferson, who he recognized the great style of it.
But Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be sacred.” Franklin goes, “No, no, no. Wait a second.” “This is self-evident.” He’s a man of science, of nature. He’s coming out of the enlightenment, and even though Jefferson is beautifully, poetically distilling a century of enlightenment, thinking into that amazing sentence, Franklin makes it a little bit better.
ALISON BEARD: What I’m hearing on him as an inventor is sort of observation of what surround him, curiosity, experimentation, but then there’s also, as he gets into nation building, this leadership element to him, so what do we know about his leadership style and how it differentiated him from the Hamiltons, the Jeffersons, the Washingtons, and why was that one of his strengths?
KEN BURNS: In terms of leadership, I think his writing and his good humor. I mean, he invents American humor in a way, a humor that Mark Twain will take up in the 19th century, Will Rogers, perhaps maybe the cliched version of the 20th century. It’s got the bark on. It’s homespun. It’s American, and he knows how to work the room. He knows how to bring people together, and so I don’t think in that super hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787, that there is the kind of result that happened without a Franklin there behind the scenes, during the sessions, back at his backyard, serving cool drinks under his mulberry tree and negotiating, that we would’ve had the creation of what we call the United States of America without that kind of leadership that he existed, and even as a young man, when he’s younger than most of the people of the tradesmen that he forms together into this club called the Junto, they’re getting together.
He’s the one who’s sponsoring all of these ideas, where they’re having discussions, and they’re having civic dialogue. They’re creating civic institutions. They need a lending library. They need an American philosophical society. These are all things that Franklin is creating out of this other thing.
I mean, we understand the notion of freedom, but today, it manifests mostly in what I want, and we understand there’s a tension between what I want and what we need. Franklin seems to reconcile that all the time. It begins with himself, and I think he practiced what he preached. He was looking for a kind of self-improvement, so he’s his best invention. He’s his greatest experiment, and it’s sincere and it’s flawed, and it’s funny, and it’s tragic in all of those things, and you don’t have to soft-sell him or just take some superficial view.
With regard to Hamilton, I think the two founding fathers who didn’t become president kind of were isolated in that fact, and that it was great that Hamilton was resurrected, albeit with some of the warts ignored, and that we feel, in a documentary world, that it was important for us to bring Franklin along to celebrate him, but also to be very, very frank about his racism, his xenophobia. He sort of romanticized, as Americans always do, native peoples. At the same time, they’re looking for spectacularly lucrative land deals, which in the process of their execution, will dispossess native people systematically of their land, so he’s a participant in what takes place that’s shameful in this continent, in those centuries, and yet, he’s also the author of so many roadmaps to how you exit that kind of world.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. It sounds like he had a very clear understanding of power dynamics, and then sort of a style of bringing people together that was a little bit egoless, in that he didn’t feel the need to lead from the front, he was very much gathering people and leading from the back?
KEN BURNS: Yeah. I think that’s a really good way to put it. I think that’s there all the time, the willingness to share credit, and I think it manifests, as I’ve mentioned now twice in the inventions, you know? We celebrate our entrepreneurs, but nobody goes out and invents some totally new thing without a patent today, but he freely wanted everyone to essentially steal what he had discovered because he’d seen it was the common good, so while there are a number of, I don’t want to dismiss it with a broad stroke, libertarians who find and have always found, in Franklin’s example, of this upwardly mobile person who got rich doing it, they’ve neglected the thing that binds them back to everybody else and his sense of our civic responsibility to each other. I find this just so spectacularly interesting throughout his life.
He is able to “Retire”, in quotes, in his 40’s because he has made so much money printing and publishing and doing various things. He’s a big civic leader, and what he then devotes himself and what he thinks he’ll devote himself for the rest of his life is first, science, and then a kind of … First, kind of politics in the sense of helping his own native Pennsylvania, but also helping the United States repair the breaches, so he’s one of the last people to come over to the revolutionary side because he’s trying so hard in London, where he spends many, many years, trying to represent the interest of Pennsylvania, and later other states, and yet, I think he brings the wisdom and perspective of being able to reconcile in both the intimate and in the broad strokes, the compromises that are necessary to get things done, to prosecute a war, to achieve the diplomatic successes necessary for it, and yet, his own life is a series of startling contradictions to all of this, you know? I mean, he’s promoting the education of young women and doesn’t think his own daughter needs that kind of help. He’s abandoned his wife, who doesn’t want to sail across the Atlantic for years and years.
Fifteen of the last 17 years of her life, he’s away, but he’s estranged from his own son who he grows up to be a loyal Britain, who becomes the Royal Governor of New Jersey, is the last Governor to be deposed by the revolutionary forces, who won’t stop meddling and is imprisoned, and is let out a prison, and starts a terrorist organization that murders patriots. Not that patriots didn’t have their own terrorist organizations that were murdering loyalists, but Franklin was estranged from his son, and in fact, it’s to the very end.
ALISON BEARD: He, as you said, did make a lot of mistakes, but wanted to improve on them. He wanted to do better, so most notably, in him going from being a slave of an owner who never even freed his slaves to advocating for emancipation.
KEN BURNS: Yeah. It’s an amazing journey, and a lot of it has to do with this moral curiosity that he has, thinking up the 12 virtues, and a friend pointing out he’s missing one, which is humility, and he goes, “Yep, and if I’d forgotten that, I might. If I did a good job at working on humility, I might be prideful that I had done a good job.” He’s very tongue in cheek. He winks … as Stacy Schiff says in her film.
I think we like the winking, but he ran advertisements for the sale of enslaved people in his newspapers. He printed ads, seeking the return of runaway, enslaved people in his newspapers, and he began to have, as Walter Isaacson describes, a kind of big ledger book, moral ledger book in his own mind, and he felt the need to balance it, so I think as he began to perceive, fully embrace the meaning well before many of the people who were authors of the United States did, he began to understand that slavery was wrong. Now, Erica Dunbar, the scholar in our film, points out this is where Pennsylvania, particularly Philadelphia is going, and people are beginning to talk about the immorality of slavery and the Pennsylvania society for promoting the abolition of slavery has started. He assumes its presidency in the last months and year of his life, so he made a big evolution, but as you said, he was getting on the right side of things, and that’s important to understand too. This is a political animal.
He understands what he has to do in order to get ahead, but at the same time, you know it’s sincere. You can trust it’s sincere. Because there is a courageous dimension to it, it doesn’t smack the kind of political expediency that we recognize as just self-serving.
ALISON BEARD: I do see many parallels to your own work. You invented a new style of documentary, you keep trying to build on and improve it, your choices of topics from, the Brooklyn Bridge and the civil war to jazz and baseball, make you something of a polymath, you’re a self-made businessman with your production company, and you manage lots of projects and teams at once, so I want to talk about what we can learn from you too. First, the art. How did you initially developed your distinct filmmaking style and how is it evolving?
KEN BURNS: Well, I think that everything goes back to still photography, for me. My earliest memories of my dad, building a dark room in our basement in a tract house, in a development in Newark, Delaware, where he was a Professor at the University of Delaware, and the magic for a three-year old kid of watching a print come up, and so I’ve used that as the DNA of our material, and what I was interested, having been untrained, but interested in American history is to tell stories in American history in which we take the artifact, in this case, the still a photograph, if it was available, and sort of treat it the way a feature filmmaker were, and I’d originally thought, “Oh, when I was a young boy, I’d be a feature filmmaker, but when I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, they disabuse me of that. They said, “They call it the industry, remember? They themselves call it the industry. Is that what you want to be doing?,” and so I left my head, turned around to documentary, and then when this latent but untrained interest in history sort of manifests itself, it just welded and there was an explosion, and so it was just a way to bring the past alive, and it has to do not just with how you energetically explore this surface of an old photograph or a painting, it’s the sound effects period music.
We have not just a third-person narrator, which is called in my biz the voice of God, but you have a chorus of voices reading first-person material, so you get a sense of how people live. I’ve been trying to do that from the very beginning, and I hope getting better at how we record the voices and who reads them and how they’re used and all of that, same way with how we treat the old photographs. There’s some films in which we’ve got tons of photographs. Some like this one, there are none. Some have lots of footage, others obviously, anything before the 20th century, zero footage, so its how you calibrate the various elements that we have, the visual archival material, the live cinematographer, the talking heads, the first-person voices, the third-person narration, the sound effects, the music, all of those get calibrated and recalibrated.
While there’s a distinct style, and style may just be the authentic application of technique, you can recognize, for example, the works of a certain painter, standing in the middle of the room of a gallery filled with her paintings, but then, as you go up to each individual painting, her challenge, her struggle with each of those works is evident and singular, so there may be, and people satirize my style wonderfully all the time.
ALISON BEARD: Isn’t it a feature on like iMovie now?
KEN BURNS: Yeah. Well, that was something, that’s Steve Jobs, and I got a friendship with him out of that, had just invented. He wanted to be able to pan and zoom. Elementary, it’s a superficial version of what we do with our work, and the we isn’t important. It’s not royal.
It’s my name goes on top, but there are lots of extraordinary writers and co-producers and co-directors and editors that are due equal credit, and so it was a funny sort of story of how he came to me and presented it and wanted to call it the Ken Burns Effect, and I said, “I don’t do commercial endorsements.” Then finally, he was sort of perturbed, but he kind of was curious about why I would do that. Maybe that’s Franklinesque, but it’s the PBS mentality that I have that is public broadcasting, and it’s not that S doesn’t stand for system, but for service, and so we ended up where he gave me a lot of hardware and software, which I, after a couple of computers, stayed with forming films, because we didn’t have any. The rest went to nonprofits, where we could send editing programs to various schools and we could send to nonprofits. It all worked out and it’s sort of a funny thing, and it turns out my kids use it.
I don’t know how to figure it out. I’m too much of a Luddite, but I know I’ve saved lots of weddings and vacations and bar mitzvahs, and things like that by allowing them to do little slideshows of the images that were taken there.
ALISON BEARD: Exactly.
KEN BURNS: That’s a wonderful thing, held without at least my patent, right?
ALISON BEARD: Yes, right. Right, right, and so seven projects at a time. I’m told you have three teams of producers. How do you manage all that? How do you-
KEN BURNS: Well, one of the things, some of them I’ve worked with for decades and decades, Alison, so you can trust that this team can do the interviews. Another time, I’ve just elevated someone who was an Associate Producer to full Producer, and he would prefer me to do the interview, so I’ve done the lion’s share of the interviews. Pretty soon, he’s going to start taking them over, so I’ve had to give up and lawfully give up some of the stuff that I do, but the critical moments, I don’t miss. We stagger these things, so they’re the seven projects that last of which will be out in seven years, so it’s a long way to go, and we work with these teams of people that I trust implicitly, and I don’t miss the really important milestones of it, the script meetings, the edits, screenings, the sessions, and I direct the corrections, I have the final say in those films in all of them, even when I share, co-direct, or co-edit, and that’s very, very important to me because if you like a film, then it’s all of those who worked on it, shared glory, but if you don’t like it, then I’m perfectly happy to say it’s all my fault, and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to sit around and complain about how I wasn’t able to do this or I wasn’t able to do that.
Working in public television allowed me to spend 10 and a half years on Vietnam. There’s no other place on the old dial, as they used to say, where that would conceivably take place. The budget might easily be there in a premium cable or a streaming service, but nobody would give you 10 and a half years, which means this is more akin to a big research university or institution, and that, you want to be able to do, to draw on a scholarship, and you suddenly realize that this method, this process that we’ve slowly developed and we hope are getting better at permits us to curate this amount of new information and not accept the gospel from one particular person’s point of view. It means there’s no one way. You provide your audience with …
You trust their intelligence to be able to synthesize complexity and to tolerate that contradiction, to tolerate that undertow. I’ve said that I’ve had the great privilege for the last nearly 50 years of making films about the U.S., but also making films about us, the two letter, lower case pronoun, all the intimacy of us and all of the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction, and the controversy of the U.S., and that’s the space that I’ve been privileged to work in. It’s just exalting, and I’m as excited about this film as I was about my first film on, called Brooklyn Bridge. I’m a little less anxious than I was then, but I’m not that much less anxious.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and you personally seem to have embraced lifelong learning over material riches. You knew you’re definitely extremely successful, but you’ve had, as you said, decades of partnership with a public broadcasting service. You’re not going to Netflix or Apple TV or any of those streaming services now. That’s been a conscious decision?
KEN BURNS: Yeah. No, I’m sleeping in the same bedroom. I slept in when I moved to this house because I thought becoming a documentary filmmaker on PBS in American history was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty, and I’m very happy to say that both of the things haven’t happened, but I’m still living in the same house. I’m still living in the same bedroom that I have been in since August of ’79, 42 and a half years, almost 43 years.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and so the changes in the television industry have sort of not impacted you because you’ve stuck with PBS.
KEN BURNS: Well, you know what? What it is, is that I’ve been able to hold them off. Many of my colleagues at PBS began computer editing by 1990. I didn’t start until 2001. By then, almost all of my colleagues, including in public television, were shooting digitally.
I didn’t abandon film and I still haven’t abandoned it totally until 2010. It was just a way of being careful that the technological tail wasn’t wagging the dog, right? You don’t want there to be the bells and whistles. You don’t want to focus all of it on the spectacular introduction with all those bells and whistles, then you want every single moment of it to have the same level of attention, and that’s what I think we’ve insisted that we do, that every single word, everywhere in the series has the same attention and we’re not going to let it go till every shot is fine. In fact, the last week of editing, you would come in and wonder what the hell I was doing because I’m opening up between phrases in the narration, say four frames, which is a sixth of a second, is just stuff we fret over.
Nobody would notice if we didn’t do that, I don’t think, but we would notice, and then I think the subtotal of it would be slightly less, and so we tend our garden very meticulously and there seems to be only one place that permits us to do so, and that’s within this broad public television system.
ALISON BEARD: Well I really enjoyed the documentary. I have to tell you that my dad was a technician at WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington DC while I was growing up, so I have been watching your films from The Civil War on. And they really are terrific.
KEN BURNS: Thank you Alison that’s really great.
ALISON BEARD: That’s documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns. His latest project is Benjamin Franklin, a two-part series on PBS.
For more lessons from famous leaders, check out our series with Harvard Business School’s Nancy Koehn. It’s called Real Leaders, four episodes from 2020, where we look at the lives and work of Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey and more.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our Audio Product Manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.