George Washington: Leadership & Restraint

George Washington never got the same respect from many intellectuals as some of the other Founding Fathers, but that tells us more about those intellectuals than it does about Washington. Washington was the central figure of the American Revolution, and I’m not only referring to the war, but also the fifteen critical years that followed. A blog about greatness should consider this man on his birthday.

George Washington Crossing the Delaware
George Washington

The following 6 lessons stand out most from the life of George Washington:

  1. Know when to step down or step aside: Chronologically this came last but conceptually this comes first. Washington was not the center of his vision of the United States. He understood that he was playing a temporary role in something bigger than himself. This understanding allowed him to play his role to the fullest, and to step aside at the appropriate time. BTW, this is a key concept behind the Sabbath as well. We improve our ability to contribute to the world by frequently reasserting our knowledge that we’re not the center of the universe, and that the world can turn without us. One of Washington’s finest and final political acts was insisting that Vice President Jefferson walk before him the day Washington became a private citizen.
  2. Know when to retreat: Yeah, similar theme. Washington was best known for his retreats. His greatest military accomplishment might have been surviving 1776. And yet his ability to avoid most military engagements allowed him to win the war.
  3. Don’t make enemies: He fought the French, and then enlisted them as allies against the British. Even while fighting the British, the British press continued to paint a positive image of the opposing general. After the war he established strong relations with the British. A century before Lincoln established his Team of Rivals, Washington managed to keep even bigger rivals united under his leadership.
  4. See things from others‘ perspective: Richard Brookhiser writes in Founding Father that Washington won the war by making it unwinnable for the British. In a zero-sum situation, he focused on his enemy’s strategy and subverted it.
  5. Step up: I’ve focused on Washington’s restraint, but Washington’s restraint  is so impressive only because of the context of a revolutionary leader. At all the key moments, Washington stepped up and took the helm. Washington made great things happen as a plantation owner, military commander, and political leader. His retreats must be understood in the context of the strategy that he developed that ultimately proved victorious. The rest of this post focused on his restraint because that’s what most set him apart from other revolutionaries. What most set him apart from the average person were his remarkable actions.
  6. Help others shine: I’m returning to the restraint theme for the final point. Whenever an ensemble cast shines it’s important to recognize the leader who helped it happen. I don’t know of any other revolutionary leader from any other period under whom men like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and others could have contributed so greatly and shined so brightly. Jefferson wrote of Washington and Franklin that “I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point.” Washington wrote “Speak seldom … never exceed a decent warmth, and submit your sentiments with diffidence. A dictatorial Stile, though it may carry conviction, is always accompanied with disgust.” Yes, sometimes Washington’s diffidence was a barely veiled act, as when showing up in military uniform to the Continental Congress and declaring himself unequal to the task of commanding the army. But the years where Washington stood at the center of the American Experiment saw remarkable contributions by others. Washington was president of the Constitutional Convention. The convention was an historic success. The fact that his name is often ignored as others are credited with the resulting document IMO speaks loudly to Washington’s greatness.

The American Exception is largely based on the remarkable balance the Founding Fathers achieved between Revolution and Restraint. Nothing exemplifies American greatness more than the humility and heroism of George Washington.

Also see: 9 Management Lessons from Lincoln

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