Learning from the Best: George Washington

Learning from the Best: George Washington

I read a great article recently about George Washington. As I read about his amazing leadership characteristics it occurred to me that they are the same characteristics any entrepreneur or business leader needs to succeed. So, in honor of the celebration of Independence Day, here are a few leadership lessons from George Washington.

The article I read was based on a speech given by the author David McCullough at BYU. You can read the article here. here.

Age Though we have no control over our age, it is interesting to note that George Washington was 43 when he took command of the Continental Army. Because most pictures of him were done at an older age, we often think of him that way. He wasn't when he led the "rabble in arms" against the British.

Vision McCullough notes over and over that Washington was a man people wanted to follow--some of which I'm sure is due to the other characteristics noted here, but he also had a vision of "the glorious cause of America" was able to instill it in others.

On December 31, 1776 all the enlistments for the entire army were up. Every single soldier was free to go home on January 1, 1777. Most were planning to. Their families were suffering, they were suffering, they had done their part "for the cause" and were now planning to go take care of their own. Washington called the troops into formation and offered them all a $10 bonus (about a month's pay) if they would enlist for another six months. The drums rolled and Washington asked those willing to stay to take a step forward. Nobody did. He rode away and then turned and road back to them and said these words:

My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.

The drums started rolling again and the men began stepping forward. Washington raised their vision beyond the suffering, lack of pay, and uncertainty to the "glorious cause."

Courage The first year of the war was a disaster for the Continental Army. They were soundly defeated in Brooklyn, and only through miraculous events managed to get 19,000 men and their horses and equipment across the East River in the dead of night to escape capture and complete defeat. As the army retreated across New Jersey its numbers were depleted by disease, desertion and defection. By the time he reached the Delaware, Washington had 3,000 men and they were all in miserable condition. Charles Wilson Peale, the famous artist, said he had never seen such miserable human beings in all his life.

Washington must have been overwhelmed. Cornwallis and his troops were headed for Philadelphia and it seemed unlikely anything could stop them. McCullough puts it this way:

Most everybody concluded that the war was over and we had lost. It was the only rational conclusion one could come to. There wasn't a chance. So Washington did what you sometimes have to do when everything is lost and all hop is gone. He attacked.

The result was a victory at Trenton and then at Princeton. According to McCullough it was "one of the most important turning points , not just in the history of the war, but in the history of our country and consequently, of the world."

Integrity Above all else, George Washington had integrity. According to McCullough:

Washington wasn’t chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity.

At the conclusion of the war, George Washington could literally have been king, but he didn't pursue his own glory. What did he do? He turned back his command to Congress. When George III heard he might do this he said, “if he does, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington had a vision of what could be, the courage to pursue it boldly, and the integrity to be true to it no matter the cost or the temptation. As business owners our causes may not be as glorious or as history changing, but they never the less require the same characteristics to succeed.

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