I have always been captivated by George Washington which is probably not unusual. Ever since I was a little kid studying history I enjoyed the stories I heard about him. When you are eight years old and learning about George Washington you are usually presented with a glowing review of him. How he was First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Heart of his countrymen or how when he cut down his father’s cherry tree he came forward and honestly told his father. So when I was in college and began studying George Washington and started to see that some of those stories were not true and that he had flaws I was a bit shocked, but it led me to appreciate him more.
The problem with the American Revolution era is that everyone in that era is romanticized and their flaws are often pushed aside. We don’t read too much about John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in France and how each despised each other or the Conway Cabal that was headed by many signers of the Declaration of Independence that sought to relieve George Washington of his command and replace him with Horatio Gates. Those facts are left out and it is unfortunate because ignorance fails to paint the complete picture.
I compiled a list of leadership lessons that I have learned from studying George Washington. What you will find is that a great leader has flaws and it is how they overcome those flaws that decides whether they are successful.
1. Ability to Listen
Years ago I heard the late Jerry Falwell say, “Great men are never intimidated by another man’s greatness.” Over the years I have seen that to be true. Insecure leaders are always wary of another persons success, especially if that success is an idea counter to their own. Washington had a humility to him that allowed him to listen to others. You see this happen throughout the war and each time Washington is able to pull back and allow others to have a different opinion. His ability to listen to others allowed for his success at Trenton and ultimately Yorktown.
This does not mean that Washington was a pushover and often humility is seen that way. He always made the final decision and when his authority was questioned in battle i.e. Charles Lee at Monmouth, he did not hesitate to assert himself.
2. Reproduced Great Leaders
A true leader always reproduces other great leaders and the best example of this was Washington’s reproduction of Nathanael Greene. Greene went on to become, arguably, the best General in the Continental Army. He out-generaled Cornwallis twice: once in New Jersey and again in South Carolina, but he also had a significant failure that cost Washington many resources. It was Greene’s idea to stay and defend Fort Washington which led to the capture of many men and ammunitions. It was one of the worst defeats of the war and nearly ended the rebel cause.
After the Battle of Fort Washington many in Congress and around Washington were calling for Greene’s termination, but Washington did not give in to them. It would not be long until Greene proved himself in New Jersey and again as a Quartermaster General, and again in the Southern Campaign.
3. Bringing Order to Chaos
When Congress elected George Washington as general of the Continental Army he inherited more of an idea than an actual army. When he arrived at the scene in Boston in 1775 the situation was chaos. Each militia had their own leadership and many of the men were undisciplined and ignorant about how to conduct themselves while encamped. While it is a testament to how well this gaggle performed in the face of the greatest military power in the world Washington knew it would not last.
When he arrived he quickly made addressed issues such as: men eliminating their waste improperly, having sex with prostitutes, established a chain of command, and began drilling them. This would be a constant battle for Washington throughout the war. He said that he wanted an army that would go toe to toe with the British and not run. It would take him until Valley Forge to carry out that.
4. Controlling His Emotions
During the American Revolution there is only one time that Washington lost his temper and it was at the Battle of Monmouth. Charles Lee disregarded an order and began to retreat instead of fight. Washington galloped towards the front line and cursed him and then led the troops back into battle. Then men would fight the British to a draw that day and it would become one of Washington’s greatest moments.
However, throughout the war you see Washington battle many issues from within. Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, had secretly been criticizing Washington’s leadership to members of Congress. This led to the Conway Cabal which sought to relieve Washington of his command. Men such as a Benjamin Rush wrote to Gates and began lobbying for Washington’s removal. During this time Washington continued to lose battle after battle, but managed to keep the army in tact. He intercepted a letter to Gates that showed of Gates plans and instead of reacting he forwarded the letter to Gates.
Congress did give Gates command of the Southern Army and bypassed Washington’s recommendation of Nathanael Greene. Gates would meet disaster at Camden and be disgraced.
5. Submission to Authority
Washington was the General of the Continental Army, but he was not the leader of the colonies…Congress was and even though he became frustrated with them he never asserted himself above them. He never allowed his success in the American Revolution to control him. Instead he believed in the idea that the Revolution was founded on and that the government was to be run by the people through their elected officials.
Try to understand what the world looked like at that time and what had transpired for centuries. While many of the founders were influenced by enlightenment writers such as: Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Blackstone, and others they had never seen a government built on such ideas. Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabel, George III, King Louis, and others were monarchies in which the king had complete control. When a military leader rose from the people and conquered the opposing army that military leader would become the new king. That is what the world had seen for centuries and the same movement began after the war was won. Many began to push for Washington to become king of America. He shocked the world when he turned the army back over to Congress and returned to private life. He did the same when he was elected President and served two terms and stepped down and transferred power to John Adams. There was no military coup or rebellion. Again the world was in shock.
King George III said that if Washington returned to private life, then he would be the greatest man in the world. Napoleon, while exiled on Elba, wrote that they wanted him to be another Washington.
One of the main differences you see in the portrait of Washington during the French and Indian War and the Whiskey Rebellion is discretion. As a young man he was known for his athleticism and aggression, but as he grew older he grew in discretion. He still had a terrible temper, but knew how to control it and he was still aggressive, but he knew when to use it to his advantage.
Fast-forward to the Whiskey Rebellion. An uprising takes place and Washington is forced to act. It was a pivotal moment because it would establish the power of the federal government. If Washington did nothing, then the government would remain weak, but if he overreacted, then he may inspire a rebellion. He opted to show force.
He personally led an army to squash the rebellion and the rebellion ended without a shot fired.
While that was an aggressive move when France wanted America to get involved in the French Revolution and his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson continued to push for American arms…Washington refused. Despite all the help France had given America during the American Revolution Washington not only refused but began to open commerce with Great Britain.
Washington understood how important it was to stay out of European wars and allow the new nation to grow. That decision proved to be right as Napoleon eventually became emperor and the French Revolution fizzled out.
George Washington’s true legacy is not what he did on the battlefield. While many will point out that Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Robert E. Lee were better generals I would also point out that Napoleon ended up exiled on Elba for betraying the people he swore to protect. Julius Caesar was murdered by the Senate for his ambition and Robert E. Lee died without a country. While their greatness on the battlefield cannot be denied they failed to translate that leadership to their private life.
Washington’s legacy is what he did after his success. When he returned to private life twice when he could have become king or served as President until his death in 1799. He set an important precedent that remains still to this day.