Take the Leap The Leadership of Washington
Tuesday, 29 May 2007
In this issue of Take The Leap from Fairfax Consulting, we are going to look at the leadership of George Washington and what makes him one of the greatest leaders in history.
In the last issue of Take the Leap, we discussed the character of a leader. In this issue, we are going to focus on the leadership of George Washington. George Washington was one of the greatest leaders in history. To a great degree it is the strength of his character that has made him such a revered and acclaimed leader. George III called Washington, "the greatest man in the world". Why was Washington such a great leader? What would make even his adversaries, such as George III, admire him so much? 

Washington was a curious mix. He grew up amidst the wealthy Virginia planter class, but in part due to the early death of his father when Washington was eleven, he was a self made man. He did not seem to seek high office and appeared humble, yet he had a sense of destiny and was certainly ambitious. He could delegate well, but had an eye for detail. He had ideals, yet was realistic. His character and self awareness were very high. Many would say that self awareness is one of the keys to being a great leader. Know what you are good at and what you are not good at. Know your tendencies which sometimes may serve you well, and at other times not so well. Washington had great stamina and perseverance. His integrity was unquestioned and even his critics acknowledged that he could not be bribed. He was bold and brave, yet had immense powers of self control. He had an ability to listen to those around him and not speak. He knew the power of patience and strategic inaction, as well as action.

What are some examples that illustrate his character and frankly his greatness? In the eulogy that is often quoted, Henry Lee said that Washington was, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". The war did not start out well, with Washington suffering a number of defeats. One writer has said that Washington lost more battles than he won, and lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history. Washington's decision to take the British on in New York City was one such poor decision and significant defeat. Washington yearned for a decisive victory. His ill equipped and relatively untrained force was no match for the well trained British regulars. New York City was a hotbed for Loyalists, loyal to Britain, and had the British navy nearby to transport British troops around the waterways there. Washington lost the battles around New York City and eventually had to retreat from Manhattan, even while dangerously delaying his retreat. However, Washington learnt from his mistakes and the lessons of this defeat. Washington, much against his own bold and decisive personality adopted a defensive strategy, named a "Fabian strategy". This strategy was named after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator who defeated the Carthaginians by withdrawing whenever his army was at risk. This is what Washington did. He made the strategic decision to make the survival of the Continental army the highest priority. This would be a long and protracted almost guerilla war style of defensive fighting, completely at odds with his personality. He adopted this strategy even when it meant letting the British take Philadelphia and letting some in the public question his approach.

Learning from his mistakes and having the self control to adopt a strategy that was for the good of the country but went against the grain of his own natural impulses, is one great example of Washington's character and leadership. One of the biggest examples of his character was Washington's decision to step down from command of the Continental army in 1783 after the war had ended, and to declare that he was retiring from public life. Washington had always believed that the Continental army was subservient to the Continental Congress. During much of the eight years the war lasted, the army was not provided with enough resources or troops. Having a standing army signed up to fight for years was something that many feared as giving the army too much control. Consequently, troops would come and go as their enlistments expired. Despite these frustrations, Washington respected Congress's authority. In 1783, in what came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy some of the army's officers believed that Washington should be declared king. Washington resisted those temptations and resigned his commission in the army once the war had officially ended. It was this event, retiring after leading the country to victory, that prompted George III to say that he was "the greatest man in the world". In comparison, other historical figures who have led revolutionary movements have not stepped down. Think of Oliver Cromwell in the English Revolution, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao or Castro.

The ability to listen to the wise counsel of others was another key to Washington's character and his success. After the Constitution had been ratified in 1788, Washington was circumspect about becoming the nation's first president, in part perhaps because of his earlier declaration that he was retiring from public life. Alexander Hamilton, a trusted aide during the war, sent Washington a stiff rebuke saying that by earlier agreeing to chair the Constitutional Convention he had "pledged to take part in the execution of the government". Washington actually thanked Hamilton for his rebuke and his "manly tone". How many leaders would stand for such a rebuke, let alone thank them for it? Several times during his career, he assembled a team of key advisers. During the war, he had Joseph Reed, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, as his "Pen-men" who could help with his language, as Washington's education had ended prematurely, in part due to the death of his father. Washington said that he needed, "to have persons that can think for me". During the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776, Washington often thought about a full scale assault, but listened to his key military advisers who counseled against this.

His ability to recruit talented able people around him was also quite remarkable. During his presidency, Washington truly assembled a team of the best and the brightest. He had James Madison handling judicial and executive appointments and liaising with Congress, not to mention spearheading the passage of the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson was brought in to be Secretary of State. Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury led the effort for fiscal reform as he tried to put the nation's finances on firm footing.

Washington also had the ability to make tough unpopular decisions. The Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794 was such a decision. British troops had remained stationed on the northwestern frontier (in defiance of the Treaty of Paris), in part due to the refusal of America to compensate British creditors for pre-revolutionary debts. Washington knew that the new nation was ill equipped to fight another war with Britain. He dispatched Chief Justice John Jay to London to work out the best deal he could. While not particularly a great deal for America it did preserve the peace and the new nation for the next twenty years. The Jay Treaty was very unpopular. Britain and France were at war, with popular sentiment siding with the French who had been America's allies during the war and now had their own revolution going on. A pro British treaty did not go down well. Washington won despite Madison and Jefferson being against the Jay Treaty.

There were many other things Washington did that were remarkable. He won two elections with unanimous approval, a feat no other president has done once let alone twice. Not only did he win a war against the most powerful army in the world, he formed a collection of colonies into a nation during his presidency. This was a task that was no less of a challenge than winning the war in the first place. He was a superb manager, founding the cabinet system. He delegated routine business to department heads, recruiting the ablest of people to head them and then trusting these people with considerable responsibility. This all from a person whose attention to detail, as shown by his detailed management of his properties at Mount Vernon and elsewhere, was legendary.

Of all Washington's remarkable qualities, Joseph Ellis in his biography of Washington called His Excellency, puts his finger on one of the keys to Washington's success. Ellis calls Washington a "supremely realistic visionary". Ellis goes on to say that, "his genius was his judgment". For a visionary to be realistic is so rare. Throughout the war and later, while he shared the ideals for American independence and liberty, he was thoroughly realistic about how tough that would be, how public attitudes could change, and about his own abilities. Between Washington's vision and his realism, mixed with his integrity lies his greatness.

More on Washington

For more on George Washington, read an excellent biography of him by Joseph Ellis titled, His Excellency. For more detail behind the key battles of 1776 including the siege of Boston and the New York campaign, read David McCullough's book 1776. 

If you have a chance and are in the Washington DC area, go visit Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia. They have a new museum, which gives a lot of background on Washington's life. It also contains three life size wax sculptures of Washington aged 19, 45 and 57, which were done by the firm of a friend of mine, Ivan Schwartz. These sculptures are truly remarkable and were done using painstaking forensic reconstruction to give us a view of Washington as a younger man that we have never seen before. It is worth a visit!