Modern Americans and others can learn many important lessons from America’s founder and first president, George Washington.
Washington was far from perfect, but his successful career has some important lessons for today’s entrepreneurs and leaders. Some lessons Washington can teach us include:
Lessons from George Washington for Leaders and Entrepreneurs:
1. Always ask for Expert Help and Listen to the Experts
Washington successfully formed and led the Continental Army and won the Revolutionary War because he sought and accepted expert help.
For example, when Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben; a Prussian mercenary and an expert in training, infantry tactics, military administration, organization, and logistics arrived at Valley Forge. Washington made Von Steuben the Inspector General of the Continental Army.
Washington also gave Steuben troops to organize into a model infantry unit. In addition, Washington let Von Steuben; a student of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, write the training manual for the Continental Army.
By accepting Von Steuben’s expertise Washington transformed his rag-tag force of volunteers into a professional army. Had Washington ignored Von Steuben the Continental Army would have been no match for the British Regulars. Hence America could have had no army to win independence at Yorktown.
2. Know when to Keep Your Mouth Shut
Strangely, Washington made one of his greatest contributions to America by keeping his mouth shut.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington presided but did not participate in the discussions. Instead, Washington sat back and let people with more knowledge, expertise, and experience do the talking.
Hence, Washington allowed wiser men; such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to write the Constitution. Madison, in particular, was a brilliant lawyer, a scholar, and an expert on law and history. Washington; however, was none of those of those things.
The Constitutional Convention succeeded because Washington refused to dominate it. Instead, he allowed creativity to flourish in the room and let others devise the plans. Genuine leaders know when to keep their mouths and allow others to brainstorm.
Washington’s ability to check his ego at the door and keep his mouth shut gave America its Constitution – the oldest and most successful such document.
3. Practice Tolerance and Acceptance
The Continental Army benefited from Von Steuben’s expertise because Washington overlooked the Baron’s homosexuality. Steuben was an openly gay man in the 18th, a time when many viewed homosexuality as a sin and a crime.
Had Washington been homophobic, the Continental Army could have never received the training and expertise Steuben offered. Thus, Washington’s willingness to accept a gay man helped make America independent.
Nor was homosexuality, Steuben’s only objectionable trait in American eyes. The Baron was a foreigner who did not speak English. In addition, Von Steuben was arrogant, prissy, domineering, aristocratic, and condescending. Washington’s willingness to overlook those flaws let the Continental Army take advantage of von Steuben’s expertise.
4. Always be Willing to Reassess and Change Long-Held Beliefs
George Washington was a lifelong slaveholder whose luxurious lifestyle rested on slave labor.
Yet Washington reassessed and rejected slavery late in life. In his will, Washington stipulated that the 123 slaves he owned would become free upon his death.
Washington’s decision to free his slaves was a sacrifice because the slaves worked plantation his widow Martha, and his stepchildren depended on for their livelihood, Mount Vernon. The decision was a radical one because it acknowledged that enslaved Africans were human beings deserving of American citizenship and equal rights.
Thus Washington was unique among the founders because he realized that racial equality was vital to America’s future. Washington realized that Americas would have to accept blacks as equals and fellow citizens if American was to survive and work. Sadly, that’s a lesson some Americans still need to learn.
In contrast, most of the slave-holding Founding Fathers; including Thomas Jefferson, refused to free their slaves. In addition, Jefferson became an unapologetic white supremacist later in life. Thus, Washington not only radically changed his beliefs, he made a significant sacrifice to practice his new beliefs.
5. Persistence Pays Off
Most failures have one thing in common they quit after one or two setbacks. Washington, on the other hand, succeeded because he was persistent.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s army suffered many defeats. Those defeats included the losses of New York City, Philadelphia (then America’s capitol), Charleston, and most of the South to the British.
Yet Washington fought on. Even at even at Valley Forge where the Continental Army faced severe shortages of food, clothes, weapons, ammunition, training, and experienced officers, Washington fought on.
Washington’s tenacity paid off because his refusal to surrender convinced French King Louis XVI that the Americans were serious about independence. Consequently, Louis began supplying the Americans with weapons, ammunition, money, and officers to organize and train the Continental Army.
Eventually, Louis sent both his navy and a French Army to America to help Washington. At Yorktown in 1781, Washington’s persistence paid off when an entire British Army surrendered to French and American forces.
A lesser commander would have quit the struggle far earlier. America became an independent Republic because Washington was persistent.
6. Understand that you are not Essential or Irreplaceable
One destructive flaw that almost all leaders share is the belief that they are essential and irreplaceable.
Consequently, many leaders stay in office long after age or changing circumstances destroys their usefulness. For instance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) ran for reelection in 1944 when he knew he was dying; and probably physically and mentally incapable of performing the President’s duties at the height of World War II.
Likewise, one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs; Henry Ford I, nearly destroyed his life’s creation; the Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) by refusing to retire. During World War II, the Federal government had to force Ford out of the company to save it.
In contrast, Washington refused to seek a third term in 1796 despite intense pressure from political supporters to do so. Washington’s decision to relinquish the Presidency gave the nation an effective Republic and put America on the road to democracy.
To explain, by not running Washington forced Americans to seek other leaders. Importantly, Washington forced others to come forward and take up the responsibilities of leadership. By retiring, Washington cleared the way for politicians such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to bring fresh ideas to the White House.
Had Washington stayed in office he would have set the dangerous precedents of President for Life and a glorious leader who can solve all the nation’s problems. That formula has led to tyranny in other Republics, particularly in Latin America.
Washington knew that there were many others capable of leading America and forced his fellow citizens to accept the fact by stepping aside. Thus, understanding when to step aside is one of the most vital traits of an outstanding leader.
Therefore, one of the most important lessons you can learn from Washington is to avoid the cult of the irreplaceable and essential leader. Washington understood the truth that if your organization is viable, it can survive and flourish without you.
7. Know When to Quit
One of Washington’s greatest strengths was knowing when to quit. For instance, in 1796, Washington understood there was little more he could as contribute as president. Thus, he relinquished the presidency.
Likewise, in 1783, Washington understood that remaining as General of the Continental Army after the Revolutionary War was pointless and dangerous. Hence, Washington resigned his commission and went home to Mount Vernon.
Washington understood that if he had remained in uniform, he could have quickly become a warlord or military dictator. Americans would have viewed General Washington as their leader and ignored the civilian government – the Continental Congress.
By resigning his commission, Washington forced Americans to accept the Continental Congress as their government. Furthermore, Washington’s resignation forced the civilian politicians to step up and start governing.
Thus Washington shows us that understanding when to leave is one of the most traits in a successful leader. History is full of business and political leaders who destroyed their legacies by staying too long and making it impossible for others to assume responsibility.
There are many lessons that leaders, administrators, executives, and entrepreneurs can learn from Washington. Hence, a study of America’s first president and his life can show you how to become a better leader.
Originally published at https://marketmadhouse.com on July 12, 2020.