ue bot icon

Leadership Thought #424 – The Example of George Washington

February 21, 2020

Free Grayscale Photo of Mans Face Concrete Statue Stock Photo

Tomorrow is George Washington’s birthday.  There are very few people (and an even a smaller number of Americans) where you can honestly say that their birth ended up changing the course of human history.  Not only did he lead the upstart Continental Army to victory against of the most powerful military power in the world at that time, but he also walked away from supreme power when he refused to become king of the newly formed United States of America, and voluntarily gave up his position as our first President.  Sometimes we forget how unusual, risky, and selfless these two actions were at the time.  You can seriously argue that if George Washington had not existed, the U.S. experiment with democracy would have never had a chance of taking flight and much of modern history could have turned out differently.

While most of us cannot scale the heights of his character, there is still much to learn from the man who would not be king:

  • The way you carry yourself as a leader matters.  Washington was known for having impeccable manners and professional attire.  He was also highly regarded for treating everyone around him with dignity and respect.  Your behavior should match the nobility of your purpose.
  • Strive to be as honest and straightforward as possible.  Everyone knew that when you spoke with Washington you were getting the truth and he would be a man of his word including his slaves who were freed upon his death as promised.
  • An army needs structure and discipline, and you don’t provide it at your own peril. Washington was definitely a “by the book” type of guy.
  • Training matters – he made sure his underfunded and overmatched troops were properly drilled and instructed.
  • Keep your communication clear and concise.  Washington was not a great orator or writer. He accepted this fact and instead made sure his messages were devoid of ambiguity.
  • Keep detailed records of important matters in both your personal and professional life.
  • Strategy should drive tactics not the other way around.  The Continental Army lost many more battles than it won, but Washington knew it was a war of attrition and that if he played his cards right the British would eventually give up.  He had a plan and stuck to it, just as Grant did almost 100 years later.
  • Surround yourself with the best talent possible (regardless of politics), give them clear direction and then trust that they will do their job.  And, when you need to give constructive feedback only ever do it in private and in a gracious manner.
  • Experience what your troops are experiencing. Don’t get too far from the front lines or remove yourself from Valley Forge type situations. Your people need to know that you appreciate and care about what they are going through.
  • Don’t get sucked into the vortex of political infighting or non-productive interpersonal communication.  Washington was notorious for always rising above the fray and having little patience for pettiness and backroom posturing.
  • Don’t try to do too much. Understand the moment you are in and focus on the most critical issues/ priorities and do those well.  Avoid the leadership temptation of over-reaching.
  • Know when not to fight.  It would have been easy to get pulled back into another conflict after The Revolutionary War, but he steadfastly and wisely refused to take the bait as President.
  • Know when to walk away. It sounds easier than it is.  Washington knew when it was time for him to move on and let others step up.  He wouldn’t have been human if his leadership ambitions were never about him, but it does seem that he always put the good of the country above his own ego.
  • Appreciate and love your spouse and be a generous supportive family member and friend.  Your core personal relationships provide the foundation (or not) from which you can cultivate your talents and launch your professional ambitions.

Sometimes we get a little numb to our annual holidays or other days of remembrance.  I’ve never liked the fact that we simply lump Lincoln and Washington together and call it President’s Day.  If ever there were two American men who deserved their own day of acknowledgement it is these two.  George Washington was truly a great man.  We are all still benefiting from his immense leadership character back in the 18th century.  Our current leaders could learn a great deal from him if they would only take notice and follow his example.  Those of us in other leadership positions also have something to strive for which includes the added benefit of making us better people.