Honoring US Election Day with Lessons in Leadership from George Washington

On Election Day in the US, it’s a good time to reflect on important lessons from one of our most beloved leaders and elected officials in US history, George Washington. Washington was a man with many strengths, but three of his most notable skills are particularly relevant to today’s business leaders.

Find the best talent and delegate power

There are many examples of Washington finding and empowering talent throughout his military and political career. One of the most notable, though, is his hiring of Alexander Hamilton to be his “right hand man.” Washington understood his personal deficits and needs, and he sought a secretary who could fill in the gaps. Hamilton’s strong writing skills, ability to learn quickly, political savvy and knowledge of provisions and logistics would serve them both well, and the more Washington empowered him, the more they both succeeded.

 Lead by example

We often talk about leading by example, both in the corporate and political realms. And George Washington’s decision to willingly step down from his Presidency after his second term is a legendary instance of this. What was remarkable at the time, and remains so today, is that he surrendered power at a time when this was not the norm -- when in fact, he was still very popular and effective. But he understood that he was setting an example for future leaders to follow. This famous move gave us the standard two-term limit that would eventually be written into the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. And the move made him a pioneer and a true change leader.  

 So, what can today’s leaders learn from this?

1.     Real power comes from empowering others – if you want to set your constituents or your company up for long-term success, understand your limitations and make sure that together, your team has all the skills it takes to succeed. You need to trust others in order to get to the better outcome, and sometimes you will need to defer to the wisdom of others to guide the way.

2.     True change leadership requires taking a risk and leading by example – if you have a clear vision and an interest in leading change, at some point you will find yourself in the lonely position of stepping out first; of doing or saying something that no one has done before. Just do it – the worst that can happen is that you make a mistake. The best that can happen is that you lead positive change for the future.

Old Lessons Still Apply

George Washington and his contemporaries on Leadership:

 1.     “Leadership is not only having a vision, but also having the courage, the discipline, and the resources to get you there.” --- Our takeaway: Leadership is not easy. If you’re going to do it well, be ready to make the required emotional and physical investment

2.     “The harder the conflict, the greater the triumph.” --- Our takeaway: healthy conflict is a key ingredient for success (this one is from Thomas Paine!)

3.     “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” --- Our takeaway: excuses undermine the power of your actions. Take accountability and move on.

4.     “We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.” –- Our takeaway: not everything is going to work the way you want. Learn from your lessons and proceed. Regret is not helpful.

“Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.” --- Our takeaway: you are always leading whether you realize it or not. Lead by example and model the behavior you want to see in others.

Michelle Maksim