July 5th, 2018

4 Leadership Lessons from George Washington

The 4th of July provides citizens a chance to cookout, cool off and consider the extraordinary and exceptional nature of our country’s founding, particularly the leadership of George Washington. However, after the grills cool, the fireworks fade, and the parades have passed, we often forget the many leadership lessons the life of Washington can teach us. Not only as free citizens of the longest lived republic in human history (242 years and counting). But as managers, business owners and those responsible for running enterprises of all stripes. Former President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Here are four ways to handle your business, and chiefly your personnel, well.

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Pick Your Battles

Many portray George Washington as a marble man; majestic and more than human. But before he was the “Father of his Country,” Washington was the frequently frustrated and often doubted commander of the Continental Army. Calling it an army may be too kind. They were largely amateurs, under-trained and ill-equipped, facing down the imposing might of professional British regulars, resplendent in their crimson red coats. Given the differences in men and materiel, Washington’s successes came more from evading capture and avoiding defeat than winning major battles. Washington knew that keeping an army in the field was good for patriot morale. With your business, pick your battles wisely, whether internally or externally. Taking on a large competitor may result in an unlikely victory, but a single loss can spell doom. Play to your strengths, mitigate risks and take ego out of your decision-making process.

Leading by Example

Washington exercised preternatural self-control. Keeping his temper in check was key to his continued career success. His soldier’s habits frustrated his sensibilities. But he sought to elevate them first through example in both appearance and action. Washington’s strong example engendered undying loyalty among his men even in the midst of myriad hardships. If your organization has a few rough quarters, budget cuts or restructuring, it’s often the loyalty to ones coworkers and managers that keeps employees from seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Rewarding Merit

Promote those who earn it. Washington was a proponent and a practitioner of meritocracy. Arguably, the British Army passing over Washington for promotion set him down the road to revolution. Nepotism and favoritism will inevitably sow discontent and discord, particularly among your best talent, sending them in search of appropriate recognition.

Be Meticulous in Your Magnanimity

As often happened during the Revolutionary War, Washington was forced to impress the property of noncombatants. He would issue receipts to them with the promise that after the war, these cooperative citizens would be fully compensated for their sacrifices. Certain British generals showed little respect for the life, liberty and property of those they viewed as unsophisticated rustic rebels. But Washington made a point to display dignity and respect to his British opponents. He even returned a dog belonging to General Howe. While certain British generals might be “gentlemen” in title, Washington was a gentleman in fact. Circumstances will require you to ask much of your employees: long hours, going the extra mile, etc. But remembering their efforts, acknowledging it and compensating them appropriately going a long way in fostering report and loyalty.

Even if your employees seek a job elsewhere or leave abruptly, never disparage them in a fit of pique. Wish them well and let them depart with a positive impression that may lead them back one day.

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