On this anniversary of George Washington’s birth, it is worth looking back at what historians have observed about his leadership. Although he wasn’t perfect, as no man or woman is, there is much to admire about George Washington and the way he led.
Historians have written about Washington’s commitment to American independence and that he frequently referred to it as “our glorious cause.” And Washington walked the talk. Henry Steele Commager once observed Washington’s sacrifice for America was supported by the facts that he served as commander of the Continental Army without pay and was nearly bankrupt by the time he returned home to Mount Vernon after serving as the country’s first president. On one occasion when approached by soldiers who wanted to overthrow the wartime government and set up Washington to lead the country, he met with them and made it clear that the thought of overthrowing the colonial American government was repulsive to him and under no circumstances would he consider it.
Like many great leaders who inspire their followers, George Washington valued the people he led rather than thinking of them as means to an end. Richard Neustadt, Presidential Scholar at Harvard University, once observed the following about Washington: “It wasn’t his generalship that made him stand out . . . It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men. His soldiers knew that he respected and cared for them, and that he would share their severe hardships.” Edward G. Lengel, described Washington’s leadership during the extraordinarily cold winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge as “sacrificial” and noted that “he took great care in seeing that his soldiers were well housed.”
Washington was confident, yet humble. His humility was reflected in the way he gave people a voice by seeking and considering their opinions and ideas. David McCullough wrote that during the Revolutionary War, Washington listened to the advice of his war council, a group of soldiers who reported directly to him, and their advice helped him avoid what would have been costly mistakes. Historians have noted that during the Constitutional Convention over which Washington presided, he rarely said a word other than to intervene and make decisions to break a logjam in the deliberations.
The foregoing historical observations paint the picture of a leader who inspired the confidence of the people he led. Joseph Ellis wrote that with all the brilliant individuals surrounding him—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others—Washington was the one to whom they indisputably looked as the greatest leader among them.
George Washington’s reputation even held up under the critical scrutiny of the tough and thorough, two time Pulitzer-prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman. While writing The First Salute, her gripping account of the American Revolution, Mrs. Tuchman struggled with the onset of blindness. With help from her daughter, she persevered to complete the volume that included a leader who truly inspired her. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Mrs. Tuchman spoke of how much she admired George Washington’s courage and perseverance despite the enormous obstacles he faced and how she and her daughter encouraged one another with the rallying cry, “remember George.”
George Washington, like all effective leaders, communicated an inspiring vision and lived it, valued people and gave them a voice. Under his leadership the colonists pulled off one of history’s greatest upsets by defeating the preeminent military power of their age with an under-trained, under-resourced militia.
On this day, it is wise for us to pause and reflect on the sacrifices of those who came before us and on how we lead others in light of George Washington’s example.
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