George Washington’s Leadership Secrets – A Reflection on Leadership for President’s Day

For my first two years of college, before I changed my major to accounting (another story for another article) I majored in American history. The early 1970’s were an exciting time to be a history major at the University of Virginia. The faculty included several giants of historiography and I learned much that I carried into my business career. My first history professor at UVa was a giant in the making, Robert Dawidoff. His distinguished career was just getting off the ground then and as the newbie in the department he got stuck teaching an American history survey to a huge group of first year students.

Knowing his audience well, Mr. Dawidoff enjoyed rubbing the varnish off the half-notions of history we students brought with us from high school.  Even 45 years later I particularly remember his no holds barred description of George Washington. The man he presented was very different from the one-dimensional hero we had learned about K-12. Mr. Dawidoff’s Washington was a human being with a considerable inventory of flaws. The real Washington came from a respectable family, but not terribly distinguished. Any social cachet he had came from his marriage to Martha Custis. He was intelligent but lacked the brilliance of several other founding fathers. He was well spoken but hardly a great orator for his time. He was vain, ambitious and something of a social climber. Most surprising of all to we students, Mr. Dawidoff argued persuasively that Washington had not been a particularly successful military leader. Except for the surprise attacks on Trenton and Princeton, his army had not performed well on the battlefield and most Continental military successes had been achieved by others. Having laid Washington’s mythology to waste Mr. Dawidoff, with a sly look asked the obvious question, “How did this man become Father of our Country”? Mr. Dawidoff had some suggestions and other professors I had over the next two years added additional color.  In the end, despite his shortcomings, Washington truly was the linchpin of America’s formative years. Three characteristics made him the “indispensable man”.

He carried himself like a leader: 

Washington seems to have been one of these people who owned the room. He was seen as a leader because he looked and acted like one. He was a large man for his time, fit and impeccably dressed. Two hundred fifty years before Harvard professor Amy Cuddy put “power poses” into the executive toolbox, Washington was a master of them. You can see examples of it in almost any painting that shows him in a group. At a glance, one has no question who is in command.  While carriage alone does not a leader make, it can be powerful support for other characteristics.

He was a man of impeccable character: 

Ambition and vanity can be a snare for leaders even to this day, but that does not have to be the case. Washington’s ambition required that he be a trusted leader and drove him to display honesty, courage, self-effacement and self-control.  Parson Weem’s apocryphal story of the young George admitting cutting down the cherry tree worked for his contemporaries because it reflected the George Washington they knew personally. In particular, his decision to resign his commission and return to Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War cemented that for his fellow Americans and for others around the world. To many Europeans it was inconceivable that a man would make the sacrifices Washington made only to walk away from the power and wealth that were his for that taking. It sent a message to the world that the American experience was unique and a break with what had come before.

Even with this, Washington’s uniqueness eludes us. We have all known high profile, high character leaders. But Washington had one final characteristic that set him apart.

He had a marvelous eye for talent, surrounded himself with talented people, and enabled these talented people to perform at their best: 

If Washington had a secret sauce, this was it. He was self-confident enough to surround himself with the best people available and to let them shine. He also cared little about a talented person’s origins. He was comfortable promoting a spendthrift Virginia aristocrat (Jefferson), the illegitimate son of a Scot from the West Indies (Hamilton), a persnickety New York lawyer (Jay), a starry-eyed French teen-aged aristocrat (Lafayette) an overweight New Englander (Knox) and a host of other men with high ability.  These talented men repaid him with an enduring loyalty that allowed him to navigate the difficult politics of the time.

Some historians try to diminish Washington, believing that without the brilliance of the other Founders that Washington would not have been possible. This proposition is true as far as it goes but I find it equally unimaginable that the other Founders would have achieved what they achieved without Washington’s support. The man deserves our respect and earned his accolades. The principles that made him special still work today.

photo credit: Thomas James Caldwell “George Washington” via photopin (license)

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