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Five Leadership Lessons from Washington

Presented by: Randy Disharoon

There are numerous ways to evaluate our own leadership style and effectiveness. One way is to learn from great leaders of the past. George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” is one such leader who demonstrated five critical traits to serve as the United States’ first leader.

  1. Lead from the front.

There is a famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of General Washington crossing the Delaware River. Washington is standing up in front of the tiny boat, his eyes resolutely fixed on the Jersey shore, the place his troops would embank and surprise attack the Hessian soldiers of the enemy forces on Christmas Day, 1776. While only a painter’s portrayal of that courageous and risky maneuver, the painting captures the heart of the man, the General leading from the front, with some 5,400 American soldiers in tow. The man was determined to regain the edge and reverse the course of the war. Many historians point to this moment as one of the turning points in the American Revolution.

  1. Listen to your people.

The Battle of Yorktown was the final victory and effectively ended the war and delivered independence for America. What many do not know is that General George Washington had one battle plan to attack Cornwallis’ army, yet his field generals had another idea. His wisdom was in listening to his people and enacting their battle plan instead. The decisive victory was made certain by the planning and execution of his team, who drew extra motivation to prove their plan was best and to make their leader proud.

  1. Persevere through crisis.

Valley Forge was the dark winter of the war. The low morale, bitter cold, poor living conditions, lack of supplies, and rampant sickness and disease forced most of Washington’s troops to want to give up, end their commission and return to their homes. In fact, the majority of the enlistments were due to end in less than two weeks, and most were expected to refuse to re-enlist. Washington’s resolve and continual commitment to fight on inspired his troops. As a result, the army entered the spring of 1778 with a renewed optimism.

  1. Delegate authority.

Washington delegated authority to train the American soldiers to Captain Friedrich von Steuben, a French mercenary. He proved to be effective in training the troops in battle tactics, drill technique and hand-to-hand combat, Until Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, the rag-tag American army was ill-equipped to match the British army’s training and skill. With so many other strategic priorities, Washington’s delegation of this crucial assignment to von Steuben proved to be ingenious.

  1. Walk with humility.

With all the accolades of a brilliant military career, the securing of freedom on the battlefield, and the adulation of the people, George Washington still possessed a deep sense of humility. A unanimous decision by the Continental Congress in 1775 to appoint Washington as General of American forces led him to pen these words of self-deprecation: “I this day declare, with utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honored with.” Even as a popular President, Washington had to be persuaded by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to run for and serve a second term.

Washington did serve a second term as President. But his humility and desire to hand the mantle of leadership to someone else still laud him as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

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