Leadership Profile: George Washington

December 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

It’s not possible to talk about leadership profiles without highlighting George Washington. There simply wouldn’t be a United States of America without him. Over two hundred years after being hailed the father of his country, Washington is still considered by many the most remarkable American to ever live.

The purpose of the Leadership Profile series isn’t to point out all the heroic accomplishments of each leader. There are plenty of history books for that. The purpose is to highlight key actions each leader took that all of us can emulate. Some leaders have heroic moments that thrust them into the spotlight. Many more simply do the next right thing over a long period of time.

As the first president of the United States, George Washington was a hero in every sense of the word. But he started where you and I start: with challenging situations in the moment. Let’s take a look at some of the things that set Washington up for success.

George WashingtonEarned His Stripes

George Washington is most recognized for being the United States’ founding president. But he started out as a surveyor and later a soldier. His expertise in the French and Indian War earned him the Commander-in-Chief role during the Revolutionary War against the British world power more than twenty years later. If Washington hadn’t been faithful in his responsibilities as an adjutant, he would have never become Commander-in-Chief.

I once heard a consulting executive share a story that a new college hire had recently told him in a state of excitement that he was looking for a project where he could coach CEOs. It was laughable, because the new analyst hadn’t done a single thing yet. Even George Washington had to prove himself.

Gained Commitment Despite Adversity

One of Washington’s strongest points was his ability to unite groups of people to a common cause. After the United States won the Revolutionary War, Washington’s leadership proved fit to unite a fragile nation. But this was the result of many decades of practice recruiting military officers, liaising with foreign dignitaries, coordinating with Congress and administrating logistics.

Perhaps the greatest test came during the winter of 1777 in Valley Forge where Washington’s men were severely under-dressed, underpaid and suffered more casualties to disease than to combat. But Washington was able to not just gain but keep their willing cooperation.

You and I aren’t likely to face the adversity Washington’s men faced, but we’ll no doubt incur some challenges on our journey. Washington’s authority wasn’t enough to keep his men pressing on. His influence was. When your commanding presence fails, use your diplomacy skills to remind everyone why they got started in the first place.

Understood Human Nature

Perhaps Washington’s dealings with so many of the VIPs of his era gave him particular insight into the motivations and failings of human nature. At any rate, he was ideologically opposed to aristocracy and committed to the idea of a republic.

Washington would have agreed with Lord Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

It’s one thing to believe the best about people, but another thing to think critically about human systems. Which systems (whether in government, business or non-profit) can best survive the flaws of human nature? That’s one question every leader must consider.

Demonstrated Unprecedented Self-Restraint

Perhaps the crowning act of Washington’s life came in 1783 when he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief when he could have easily leveraged his military prowess into an emperorship. In fact, it stunned the British so much that King George III called Washington, “the greatest character of the age.” Instead Washington retired and returned home, only to later be elected the first president of the first free nation on earth. Even in presidency he was well aware that everything he did set precedent for the rest to follow.

You and I will probably never have the chance to rule a nation, but we will have the chance to rule something and someone. When the opportunity presents itself, the key question is: are we working to serve ourselves or to serve others?

Washington’s legacy is marked by personal sacrifice en lieu of public victories. Let’s follow suite.

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.