Getting a large enterprise off the ground is no easy task. Many leaders who have tried find their efforts frustrated by a seemingly endless array of challenges that arise both from within and outside their organizations or spheres of influence. Now imagine starting an enterprise from scratch with inexperienced and often undisciplined people from various walks of life while being opposed by the world’s most powerful army.
That is precisely the challenge George Washington faced 238 years ago as he tried to turn the Continental Army into a force capable of winning independence for the American colonies and establishing the confederate colonies as a new, unified nation. Let’s take a look at some of the personal leadership qualities George Washington displayed that allowed him to succeed at this incredibly daunting task.
1. Washington was a terrific “people person” who chose his associates carefully and instilled confidence in those around him. Washington was a man of exceptional integrity, and he carried himself with dignity and self-confidence. As David McCullough writes in his book 1776, Washington had “the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and to being obeyed. He was not austere. There was no hint of arrogance. ‘Amiable‘ and ‘modest‘ were words frequently used to describe him, and there was a softness in his eyes that people remembered.” Yet Washington was careful about whom he associated with and the effects his associations had on the overall success of his objectives. Washington said, “Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” He also had this advice for his officers: “Be easy . . . but not too familiar lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect, which is necessary to support a proper command.” Washington earned the respect, loyalty, and confidence of his subordinates because he was a man clearly guided by principle who likewise showed respect, loyalty, and confidence in his men.
2. Washington was characterized by good judgment and prudence. In a public eulogy of Washington delivered by Fisher Ames, Ames made the following point about why Washington was so well equipped to serve and lead his country: His prudence was consummate, and seemed to take the direction of his powers and passions; for as a soldier, he was more solicitous to avoid mistakes that might be fatal, than to perform exploits that are brilliant; and as a statesman, to adhere to just principles, however old, than to pursue novelties . . . . Thomas Jefferson had even higher praise for his fellow Virginian, writing: Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. George Washington’s judicious decision making guided the new nation to victory in war and stability in its governance.
3. Along with uncommon valor, Washington displayed a dogged determination to see the great American experiment succeed. Despite many setbacks on and off the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, General Washington’s relentless efforts to instill discipline in his men allowed him to train and lead the Continental Army to victory over the supposedly superior forces of Great Britain. Years after the war ended, he became president of the Constitutional Convention, lending his guiding hand in establishing the new government of the United States. As the first president of the United States under its new constitution, President Washington governed carefully and cautiously, always aware that he was setting important precedents for the nation and always refusing (as he had in the aftermath of the war) to abuse his power or assume dictatorial authority. Through all of these endeavors, George Washington displayed remarkable organizational and administrative skills, and he showed tremendous courage by risking his life, liberty, wealth, and reputation for his countrymen. Although he often longed to return to private life, he always answered the call of his nation for the lasting benefit of all.
As America celebrates its national birthday on July 4, it is appropriate to consider these outstanding leadership qualities from this great man who is rightfully considered by many to be “The Father of Our Country.” Perhaps no other person in any of the original colonies could have successfully surmounted the challenges he faced in leading the army to victory and the states to nationhood. The integrity, dignity, wisdom, courage, and determination George Washington displayed during the founding of the nation can still serve as a model for present-day leaders.