Leadership Secrets of Great Presidents You Need for Business, Part One: George Washington

George Washington is perhaps the greatest of all American presidents. It is a wonderful thing to have had his leadership, especially as the first president. In fact it may be hard to exaggerate just how important it was to the success of the United States to have had George Washington as the first president, as if it had been someone of lesser character, the United states may not have become the success that it has evolved to be.

Of course, there are problems. No nation is perfect. In fact many of the terrible and unforgivable crimes committed by the United states need to be remembered, taught, discussed and made into lessons if we are to avoid repeating those crimes in the future. We certainly have the capacity for terrible crimes against humanity, and evidence abounds that we have blood on our hands. this, however, is not the focus of this article. Rather, it is for us to see what positive lessons might be gleaned from an examination of the leadership of George Washington. Furthermore, we will see how Washington is an example of how to lead in business.

Transparency

Leadership in business requires that there be transparency in decision making. Everyone involved in the mission needs to know how the decision was made and how it will affect them.

In the case of George Washington, he started his presidency with a transparent leadership style. For his first cabinet, he selected not the most obvious and adoring supporters to surround himself with. Instead he selected advisers that were enemies of each other, who would offer conflicting advice, arguments and evidence for every decision.

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Washington surrounded himself with rival advisers

He did this so as to be transparent and open-minded about his leadership. Not to be blinded or swayed by sycophants, Washington selected Alexander Hamilton as his treasury secretary, and Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of State. Along with Henry Knox, this was the extent of the cabinet for Washington.

The cabinet has since expanded enormously, but ironically today it contains fewer voices of opposition and more voices of praise for the President.

Washington benefited from the debates over the domestic and foreign policies of rivals like Hamilton and Jefferson. Because of their diverse perspectives, Washington saw the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, the negotiation of Jay’s Treaty and the plans for the new American economy through the Report on Manufactures.

Humility

The best laid plans in any business are prone to failure, as they are plans, based upon assumptions. Assumptions can be wrong and reality can change over time. In business it is important to always reevaluate assumptions and realities, knowing when success is still possible, as well as when to call it a day and save time, money and reputation for more successful opportunities in the future.

As a young officer in the British army, Washington led and expedition into Ohio to survey new lands for himself and pother Virginians. This was in all reality an invasion of French Territory, and was met with resistance by Native American tribes in the Ohio River Valley.

Fleeing for his life from French and Native American forces, Washington was ultimately forced to create temporary defenses in the form of a small outpost he dubbed Fort Necessity. He stood down the French and Native American fighters, but ultimately surrendered, being outnumbered by superior forces.

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Ft. Necessity

Washington signed a surrender agreement and withdrew with his men to British territory, showing a willingness to see his limitations and to accept defeat. Rather then push onward with the plan and fight to the death, Washington showed humility that saved his life and the lives of his men, so that one day again they might claim control of the Ohio River Valley.

Confidence

Confidence in leadership is one of the best qualities; always in demand and always obvious in the best leaders. Confidence can be infectious, and can make talented individuals coalesce into a successful team.

Washington famously stood atop Breeds Hill outside of Boston with his Colonial Army, not yet tested in battle. The ambush at Lexington and Concord had already taken place, and the patriots in Boston were eager to resist the British, and kick off a new nation with new American leadership.

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Bunker Hill

With Washington leading them, the Americans constructed defenses at the top of Breeds Hill, now called Bunker Hill, and fired upon the Advancing British Army as his marched up to their position. An untrained army of volunteer patriot rebels stood down the most veteran army in the world, confident they could go toe to toe with them ion the battlefield.

Ultimately the British took the hill, and Washington and his men escaped to New York, but the victory was in the confidence of their efforts. This example of confidence leadership cemented Washington as the leader of a new Colonial Army, stalwart in its belief that it could win a noble cause in the face of overwhelming odds.

Courage

Courage in business is the hallmark of any leader, regardless of the size of the firm. In order to start a business, run a franchise, rule from the corner office or the corporate board room, courage is required. The decision made in business affect not only the leader, owner and shareholders, but the customer and the employees as well.

Frequently business leaders are beset by guilt and fear over decisions that might lead to lost employees even more than whether they lead to lost profits. Business is, after all, all about people. Decisions affecting people require courage, because the outcome could mean business success or unemployment for many innocent, hardworking colleagues.

Washington certainly had courage. One interesting moment of his career as a leader of men came at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. While riding along the ranks looking to steady the men, Washington had two horses shot out from under him and four bullet holes shot through his coat.

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Princeton

Later, at the Battle of Princeton (January 3, 1777), Washington rode forward on his white charger as he led his soldiers in a successful counter-attack against the British. At one point Washington was no more than 30 yards from the British line and was an easy target. Despite the widespread fears that he would be shot down at any moment, Washington was heard to say to his troops, “Parade with me my fine fellows, we will have them soon!”

Leading from the front, by example, takes courage. Washington showed he was just as willing to lay down his life. He demanded the same complete focus and dedication from his soldiers.

In business, leading from the front, by example, is courageous. Showing how determined you are as a leader inspires others to be dedicated, knowing that their investment in the business will not be wasted.


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Learn from failure

A business that doesn’t learn from failure won’t be in business for long. Leaders rarely become leaders if they can’t learn from failure. Bosses who don’t learn from failure, or defect responsibility for failure are not leaders, just bosses. The best employees will not give their best to someone who doesn’t inspire them. Knowing how to learn from failure, because it’s not a failure but an opportunity, is the difference between being a boss and being a leader in business.

George Washington was a lifelong learner and reader. He was almost completely self educated, devoting his time from a young boy through his presidency, to learning new things and becoming better at them over time.

He read to become a better soldier, farmer, and president; he corresponded with authors and friends in America and Europe; and he exchanged ideas that fed the ongoing agricultural, social, and political revolutions of his day.

This willingness to learn meant that his approach to failure had to have resilience and optimism to see the valuing in trying, failing and learning.

Trust

In business, trust is a central issue and frequently a central concern. In everything, leaders in business but inspire trust. Employees need to know that the promises made by the leader will be honored. Customers need to trust that the company will stand by its product. Suppliers need to know that the company can be trusted to pay it’s bills. Investor need to trust that the business is being run ethically as well as profitably.

After the success of the Revolution, Washington was approached by a group of army officers who were upset. The army had not been paid, and the new American government was giving little attention or appreciation to the veterans who had lost much and suffered greatly for their risk and sacrifice in the Revolution.

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The Conspiracy

The officers proposed to Washington that they revolt against the new government and place Washington is charge as a new American Emperor. This is known as the Newberg Conspiracy.

Washington gave an impassioned speech to the men, imploring them to have faith and trust in the new government to do right. He put down the coup before it could start, because he lead with trust that in time, and with patience, everything would be right.

Decisiveness

It is said that fortune favors the brave, but it is prefers decisiveness. Business leaders make decisions. It’s what they do. It is the job of the leader to decide. Being weak, slow or uncertain about the decisions to be made can have a ripple effect of panic through any organization. If the decisions at the top of any business do not seem to have clear and timely feel, the business could suffer from a reputation of mismanagement. Customers and accounts could be lost if they get a whiff of indecisiveness from the leadership of a firm.

Confidence breeds success, and decisiveness fosters confidence in everyone around you.

In Washington’s case, he had every reason to be indecisive, but his leadership showed how decisive action could lead to profound success.

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Washington Crossing the Delaware

After a series of stinging defeats in New York and New Jersey, the Continental Army and the patriot cause seemed near extinction by December 1776. Most generals would have slipped away to the safety of winter quarters, but Gen. Washington had an entirely different plan in mind. His bold counter-stroke across the ice-choked Delaware River on December 25, 1776 led to three successive battlefield victories and a stunning strategic reversal which bolstered American morale and saved the new nation.

Washington is an obvious example of great leadership. In business, seeing the connections between history and today can help us to understand how the lessons of the past can help foster an advantage today. As a business leader, Washington was successful. His example as a general and as a president offer lessons for business leadership.


Please watch out for the next installment in this series of Presidential Leadership for Business Leaders today.


Washington was first and foremost brave. In business, much rides of the bravery of leaders. It is not easy to lead other, regardless of the circumstances, and business is no exception. Bravery is required in order to foster teamwork, set goals and speak with honesty and compassion when big and difficult decision need to be made. Business leadership is not for the faint of heart.

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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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