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We’ve all heard that leaders are not born, they are made - mostly by navigating through unfavorable circumstances. On top of that, they also possess the mental skills needed to inspire others, make them believe in a victory, and eager to follow them. If so, is there any foolproof plan that can put you on the right track in assuming a leadership position in your workplace?
The short answer is: yes. Richard Brookhiser, a journalist, prolific biographer, and historian, was wise enough to look for the road map to leadership in the arena of historical trial and error. If your humble self aspires to lead, then investing some time to explore George Washington’s implicit principles for leadership is a must-have.
Many people are not aware that America’s first president actually ran two startups, the army, and the presidency, and chaired the most important committee meeting in history, the Constitutional Convention. So in a way, he was the “Founding CEO.”
“His agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America’s richest man,” Brookhiser writes, and people, “some of them smarter or better spoken than he was,” did what he told them to do. You probably know – well, sort of – what Washington did, but Brookhiser in this book is more focused on how he did it. And this is what we will dwell on for a short while now.
When you do something for the first time, it is essential to give some structure to what you are doing. Given that it is highly likely that these actions will be fairly repetitive, an effort is to be vested in establishing procedures.
And this applies to the most obvious goals. Especially at the beginning. It is with this in mind that Washington kept insisting on maintaining hygiene amongst the troops. If you think that wars are fought and won on the battlefield, you might be just wrong. The health of the troops was the first priority. Making sure that their bowel movements were properly in place was more important than having weapons and no army to use them.
So, Washington persistently insisted on the enforcement of the newly established “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” And yes, to make his point across, several officers even got court-martialed for “easing themselves” and not abiding by the orders and regulations outlined in the code of conduct for U.S. troops.
But what happens when you are not 100% positive that something stinks? This structure has to be flexible as well to allow new data to be incorporated, not to break the rules just for the fun of it. When facing a new problem and you have smart people pitching ideas at you, you need to measure carefully.
As Brookhiser puts Washington’s learning curve into perspective: “He had to learn things he did not know, do things he did not do well, and learn not to attempt things he could not do at all.” And problems always present new ways of doing things, some of which will soon become a new code.
Well aware of this, he learned from problems and from situations that he mastered, or ones that got the best of him. When his first spies failed in their mission, he changed the approach to intelligence gathering. When he noticed that the tobacco was not of the desired quality, he diversified his fields with buckwheat, hemp, and alfalfa. You might need to give several tries until you find the best strategy, but once you do find it – follow through relentlessly.
If you are a leader, you are bound to look ahead, and what you are looking at in advance might affect your decisions today. No leader will totally and exactly know what is coming or all the things to prepare for.What one can do, however, is recognize not knowing something and mentally prepare for that. “Be light on your feet, because you will be moving a lot.” This is especially important when you need to consult diverse shareholders on key decisions. The managing style in these instances can vary significantly.
Washington preferred what Richard Brookhiser calls the ‘cob and wheel model.’ He would put himself at the center of the issue and allow input from all parties that can contribute. In the role of commander in chief, this meant arriving at decisions together with his war council, where he allowed to be overruled by the majority. In his role as the president of this new republic, he continued to follow the same model.
When a group of angry and armed Americans from the Distilleries in the Alleghenies stopped paying the excise tax on distilled spirits, he merged all proposed solutions into one general direction. His war cabinet advised him to use excessive force. The secretary of state argued that this would amount to terror, and asked for a commission to meet with the rebels. The attorney general asked to prosecute them and, if this failed, then to use force. Voices fearing that none of this would work as the tax is very unpopular.
Washington decided to go with all of the proposed solutions: he sent a commission, drafted indictments, and used a militia to enforce tax collection. . Thus he successfully crashed what later would be known as the Whiskey Rebellion. And the result no one is talking about – he gave unity of purpose to the whole community!
One of the points often reiterated throughout the book is that a leader has to know when to delegate and accept that they don’t know how to solve the issue. In this regard, “Washington had the good luck and the good judgment to spot those who could and (…) let them do their work.” To do this, you need to judge people constantly, and judge them accurately – because to manage them well means to make or break the success and/or failure.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Washington’s demeanor, both publicly and privately, would tell you that he knew how to influence people. He understood that becoming the part starts with playing the part. And so, when he was eyeing the position of commander in chief for himself, he attended the sessions in his old army uniform.
Unfortunately, we need to rely on personal accounts from that time, since what we are used to watching as video material was simply not an option back then. Everyone who wrote about him had something to say about his presence - that his height and his attitude commanded respect, that he was always put together, that he knew when and how to appeal to emotions in favor of moving ahead with what was in the best interest.
Imagine sitting in Congress through one of his speeches, while everyone is anxious not to miss one word, as he was known to purposefully speak with a lower voice at public gatherings. The roles and responsibilities that George Washington had to contend with are, in a way, the bedrock of what today is known as the United States of America.
But do not forget: if you want to lead, you need to make sure you act like a leader! That means not merely to flaunt your authority and status but to rise to the occasion and perform. You have to communicate well with both your partners and adversaries, with subordinates and with the public. Washington is also known for his “gift of silence” in that he knew that a leader has to be able to listen.
Most leaders make decisions that do not affect just them, but entire companies, or even whole countries. That being said, the consequences can be quite grave for everyone involved. Since this is not child’s play, you cannot expect everything to play out as you would imagine. You need to understand the importance of the general flow of things. Washington mastered this, especially as a commander in chief of the Continental Army, when desperately wanted supplies and reinforcements were absent.
He knew that opportunities do not materialize just because you need them. Or because you are ready for them. Rather they are to be taken when they present themselves. On the other hand, you need to have a central belief and focused intent. Your idea may be valid and reasonably defensible in an argument. This is worth nothing if there is no one to listen to.
Washington was usually inclined to be aggressive and bold in military matters, even if he had inferior forces. He was advocating for a quick and decisive blow since the beginning of the conflict with the British army. It was a circumstance that made his council of war listen to his appeal to action. And action did happen that Christmas night in 1776 when he convinced the remaining generals to cross the Delaware River and turn the tide of the War of Independence.
If you lead people, you take the risk on their behalf. And every now and then, you will have to pay the price for accepting the risk. You need to learn to accept failure head-on and with full responsibility. People will fail, and you will fail them. Since none of you are going anywhere – well, for the most part – you need to treat them kindly when this happens. Washington was known for giving second chances to his men and often reaped the rewards because these people felt obliged to perform better the second time.
Every leader has a range of dissenters and enemies in their dust. Be watchful of people who believe that you have done them wrong, even if you have not. Given the proper opportunity, they will line up to take your position or hurt you in any shape or way possible. This is simply how human nature works and applies regardless of how just, honorable, or humanitarian your cause and goal is.
“George Washington on Leadership” is a book written for people of action. Though some of its readers jump to judge it for its lack of consistency with all historical details, it seems that these commentators missed the central point of the book. This is a book for businessmen, politicians, and military men and offers practical lessons on leadership with anecdotal examples from Washington’s public life.
It is not a scholarly article on minute historical trivia, but a guideline for decision-makers on becoming and remaining a leader. We have the luxury of having historical distance from the Founding CEO’s time, and Richard Brookhiser does a great job in abstracting the essence of effective leadership in this book.
Most of the concepts described in this book can be employed immediately in your environment regardless of your occupation, level of ambition, or time on your hands. We encourage you to take that extra step and try practicing what leaders like Washington did – you will reap the benefits and thank us later.
Richard Brookhiser is a historian, journalist, and prolific biographer whose articles appear in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and many others. His interest is centered around the history of the Founding Fathers, which reflects in his other... (Read more)
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