Leadership Profile: George Washington Carver

July 1, 2013

You never should have heard about him. His story defies the odds. He was born into slavery, kidnapped by raiders as an infant, was not expected to live beyond 21 years of age because of his poor health and was a black scientist in the age of racial segregation. But after his death, the United States built the first national monument to honor someone other than a president. That someone was George Washington Carver.

George Washington Carver LabIn between, George Washington Carver accomplished incredible feats as a scientist, educator and inventor – and he raised the bar when it comes to leadership.

Here are a few of the leadership lessons we can take from George Washington Carver.

Lifelong Learning

As unfortunate as the circumstances surrounding his birth had been, Carver benefited from the influence of several key people in his life when it came to education. The first were his owners, Moses and Susan Carver, who ransomed George from slave raiders and raised him as their son after slavery was abolished. Susan taught George to read and write. George later moved to live with several sets of foster parents in areas with learning opportunities. He eventually graduated from high school and earned a bachelor and masters degree from Iowa State. From there, Carver joined the Tuskegee Institute Agriculture Department at the request of Booker T. Washington as an educator and researcher for 47 years.

Carver once said that, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of opportunity,” and it proved true in his life.

Persistence

As high profile as his work became – Carver invented over 300 uses for the peanut and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes – the majority of his accomplishments were a result of conquering the mundane. Each invention came after hours of nature walks, observation and scientific testing in his laboratory. It wasn’t until Carver broke through that he was able to help create new industries based off products he helped to invent – all of which benefited farmer rotating crops as well as the public in general. In fact, Carver’s testimony before Congress as an expert witness resulted in a tariff on imported peanuts and the boom of the industry.

When it came to success, Carver didn’t cite ingenuity, although was certainly blessed with it. Instead, he remarked that, “99% of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”

Carver also added that,  “when you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” And that was certainly the case.

Virtue

Carver was known as a man of faith and advocated that belief in both God and science were compatible. Carver frequently acknowledged that God guided and inspired his work, including a testimony in which Carver claimed that God refused to reveal the secrets of the universe and of humankind, but relented when Carver asked the secrets of the peanut.

As impressive as Carver’s faith was his concern for the character development of his students, whom he regularly taught his eight cardinal virtues:

  • Be clean both inside and out.
  • Neither look up to the rich nor down on the poor.
  • Lose, if need be, without squealing.
  • Win without bragging.
  • Always be considerate of women, children, and older people.
  • Be too brave to lie.
  • Be too generous to cheat.
  • Take your share of the world and let others take theirs.

I think we can all agree that we need more men and women like George Washington Carver – the kind of people that overcome adversity, focus on the task at hand (no matter how large or small) and positively influence the next generation. Not everyone is blessed with the genius Carver had, but each of us can follow the example he set.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.
  • What a testament to education, opportunity, and choosing to excel. Thanks for sharing, Nate!

    • Thanks, Tom – I don’t know how someone could do a profile series like this without including GWC!