Lessons from History: George Washington – The Leader We Needed

In this installment of the Learning from History series, I studied George Washington.

George Washington, widely thought of as the “Father of our Country”, was an accomplished leader who helped our fledgling republic earn its independence. He helped launch America through his actions. I found, as with most great leaders, that The Five Practices of an Exemplary Leadership® were all present with George. As we look at the history of our country, let’s look at some of the lessons of one of the key characters in that drama.

George Washington provides some lessons in leadership that are as crucial today as they were in his time.

Leaders Go First

We often say today that leaders should “go first”. Washington was the founding father of our nation with the most military experience. As a young man, Washington was tasked with exploring the area west of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains for the Governor of Virginia. These difficult assignments helped forge his iron will for the challenges he would later face.

George Washington felt called to military service and served in the difficult areas of the Ohio Valley early in his career. Though the major battles he faced were not always successful, Washington’s courage was clearly seen. Stephen Brumwell in George Washington: Gentleman Warrior wrote of his “physical courage under fire.” Washington’s courage on the field of battle was central to his presence. He led his men into battle and provided a calming presence under fire in key battles not only as a young man but during the revolution as the leader of the Continental Army. Washington suffered alongside his troops throughout the war and did not take leave through the entire conflict. Washington refused to accept payment through the Revolutionary War and later as our first President, which caused him financial challenges.

George Washington was a principled man who worked hard to be a new type of leader for a new type of nation. He had a strong sense of honor and put the interests of the nation ahead of his own. As stated by Professor Richard Beeman, he was “motivated in his public life by civic virtue…His ability to subordinate his personal interests to the public good in all public behavior and demeanor served as examples for others to follow.” Washington was a great example of what many today discuss as a “Servant Leader”.

A Values-Based Life

Growing up, we all learned the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Here is a simple refresher for those who heard it long ago –

When George Washington was six years old, he received a hatchet as a gift. He took the hatchet and as a young boy is likely to do, he used it on one of his father’s cherry trees. When his father found out, he was upset and confronted George about what had happened. Young George owned up to his transgression and said “I cannot tell a lie… I did cut it with my hatchet.” His father rejoiced in his honesty and stated that that was more valuable than many trees.

While one of the most well-known parts of the history and mythology of George Washington, it was actually the creation of one of his early biographers, Mason Locke Weems. After Washington’s death in 1799, there was a great desire from people to learn more about him. Weems was a minister and wanted to change how Washington was seen by many, he hoped to humanize him by sharing the story of his private virtues leading to his public accomplishments. He wanted people to see Washington as a role model for young Americans. A figure that they could aspire to be like by ascribing to the positive virtues that come out of the stories of young Washington.

This story, though apocryphal, remains one of the most repeated all these years later because at its core, is a deep truth that we know to be important: the power of honesty in creating good in the world.

In conducting sessions of The Leadership Challenge® with leaders around the world, one of the exercises we will frequently conduct is asking people to take a list of positive characteristics and selecting a small number of the most important to them in someone they would willingly follow. Without fail, honesty shows up in the shortlist for more people than any other characteristic.

Washington was well known and regarded for his honesty and strong moral center. Though this story from Washington’s early biography may not be factually correct, it has helped to personalize Washington for generations of people learning about how our nation came to be and the virtues upon which it was founded.

Enabling Others

Washington treated the men he led with dignity and respect. He had faith and belief in his men, whatever their rank. As a military leader, he was hard on his men in training to prepare them for the hardships they would face in battle. He taught new tactics and ways of fighting to his forces from Virginia that would serve as lessons throughout the battles of the French and Indian War and the Revolution.

Challenge the Process

During his time serving west of the mountains, he learned from the tactics of Native Americans in ways that would impact his later leadership in military battles. Washington created an alliance with the Native Americans to better understand the land and the people. As the French and Indian War was underway, Washington shared his knowledge of possible tactics that differed dramatically from his superiors’ ideas of war.

When drafted to be the first President of the republic he helped to form a way to govern the new nation. He immersed himself in the details of how the new nation would work and brought together the best leaders of the time to create our first cabinet. John Jay, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were all more educated. Washington wrote that “much abler heads than my own” would be needed to achieve uniting the different states and their interests into a sustaining republic.

As the first President of the United States, Washington was careful to ensure that the office did not become a centralized seat of power. He carefully tried to model how he believed the leader of our new nation should act. He created the first Cabinet and engaged the greatest thinkers of the time to bring divergent views to the surface to find the best way forward. While this led to great advancements, the friction between Hamilton and Jefferson would lead to needing more from Washington.

George Washington looked to leave public service after his first term. He became convinced that the competing philosophies of Jefferson’s calls for stronger states’ rights and Hamilton’s call for a stronger central government would lead to trouble for the new nation. He agreed to run for and serve a second term only to help the nation continue to develop and survive this early partisanship.

Vision

Washington had a clear vision for what he hoped the United States of America could become. These included a well-developed set of both short and long-term goals. His vision included 1) the absolute necessity of the Union, 2) faithful obedience to the Constitution, 3) the establishment of a government that would be trusted by its citizens, 4) building an infrastructure that would support business, education and industry and 5) the development of the distinctly American national character.

Much of what he envisioned and initially created during the beginning of our nation still survives. His ability to organize and plan allowed him to carefully craft rules and structures to operationalize the Constitution. He helped to create the separation of powers that still exists today. He carefully observed and honored the role of Congress in setting laws and domestic policies while also protecting the role and responsibilities of the President.

Lessons for Today

As we celebrate our freedom, it is important to remember the great leaders who worked hard and suffered much to create this great nation. We can take lessons in perseverance, the development of competence and of living a life based on core values from a man like George Washington.

Check out more blogs in the Learning From History Leadership Series where I cover other historical figures such as General John Buford, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale.

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Evans Kerrigan

Evans Kerrigan works tirelessly in both corporate and public sectors as a dynamic business consultant, presenter, and coach. With over 30 years of experience working with multi-national organizations such as Cisco, Sun Blue Cross Blue Shield, BP, State of Arizona and King County Washington, Evans has been at the forefront of change management--building healthy organizations and creating great places to work. His contributions to these organizations have been credited with increasing employee engagement scores, dramatic reductions in costs and improvement in efficiencies and revenue, resulting in improved operational excellence.