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What Today’s Leaders Can Learn from George Washington

What Today’s Leaders Can Learn from George Washington

February 2024


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Every year, on the third Monday in February, Americans celebrate the lives and accomplishments of some of our most prestigious presidents. One of those leaders is our first president, George Washington.

Washington is an American legend, famous for his leadership as both a wartime general and a statesman during times of peace. Throughout his lengthy and decorated career, he demonstrated many leadership qualities that are worth considering, not just on a single day in February but throughout the entire year.

Here are seven of George Washington’s top leadership strengths to keep in mind in the coming year.

1. Washington Was a Visionary Leader

It didn’t matter if Washington was desperately holding an army together at Valley Forge or working to keep a young nation on track in its infancy. Washington possessed a clear vision for the future and worked tirelessly to achieve it. He always acted as a leader driven by purpose.

An excellent example of this is his refusal to use the army to seize power. Even after the fighting ended, events like the Newburgh Address (which, in effect, talked down a mutinous post-Revolutionary War army) showed that his goal was more than simply achieving or retaining power. He kept ethics at the forefront and long-term goals in mind at every turn — both of which are essential parts of long-term leadership success.

2. Washington Was a Strategic Thinker

During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s battlefield tactics and luck were a mixed bag. However, the general gained a reputation as a strategic thinker, no matter how fate treated him.

This is best demonstrated by his chief adversary, Cornwallis, referring to him as an “Old Fox” when he thought the general was trapped — only to find he’d slipped away yet again the following morning. Washington was always trying to stay a step ahead of each challenge. It gave him an extraordinary resilience that is highly applicable in the modern, unpredictable workplace.

3. Washington Was a Charismatic Communicator

It’s no secret that George Washington was a charismatic guy. Some of this was doubtless a result of his outward appearance. He was one of the tallest presidents in history, which gave him a literal leg up to get a crowd’s attention. But his charisma came from much more than his towering 6-foot-2-inch stature.

Washington could captivate an audience, regardless of whether they were soldiers or citizens. He could inspire and motivate them through both his speech and his actions (more on that second one in a moment). Strong leaders can mimic this behavior by seeking to animate and embolden their teams to work toward clear goals that they, themselves, are passionately committed to achieving.

4. Washington Exemplified Integrity and Honor

When Washington was handed an army to lead the American Revolution, he was given a position of ultimate power — something that has been eerily echoed throughout history. From Alexander the Great to Washington’s contemporary Napoleon, successful men with armed forces tended to use their on-demand muscle and popularity from success to stay in dictatorial positions of power.

Not so with Washington. The man’s unwavering integrity and commitment to ethical principles led him to resign his position when the war was over — an act that led King George III of England to say, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington’s moral code earned the trust and respect of his followers. It’s a fact that still holds weight, even in the modern office.

5. George Washington Was a Decisive Decision-Maker

Washington wasn’t afraid to make tough choices. His most famous sudden strike took place when he crossed the Delaware at Trenton on Christmas Day. 

That may have been Washington’s most legendary bold move, but it wasn’t his only one. On the contrary, he exhibited decisive leadership throughout his military and political careers. Leaders can learn from Washington’s confidence to make tough decisions, accept the consequences, and consider his next move over and over again.

6. Washington Was a Paragon of Humility and Self-Awareness

Washington may have been a powerful geopolitical figure, but he was also well aware of his need to be a servant leader. Rather than put his soldiers in their place, he consistently demonstrated humility and self-awareness.

One of the best examples of this is a story where he voluntarily helped a group of soldiers (who were unaware of who he was) with some manual labor right in front of their commanding officer. Good leaders are servants, both in the 18th-century army and the 21st-century office. They are humble and willing to get in the trenches whenever necessary. 

7. Washington Exhibited an Ability to Build Consensus

George Washington may have been a strong leader, but he knew that his strength was built on the support and energy of those around him. This made his ability to bring people together and build consensus a critical aspect of his success.

Again, there are countless moments when he demonstrated this ability to skillfully navigate diverse opinions and interests to build consensus among the Founding Fathers. Perhaps the most enduring example, though, is his unanimous election as the country’s first president. Modern leaders may not experience the same undivided support, but they should always appreciate the power that fostering unity and cohesion can have on a group’s success.

Finding Washington-Like Character Traits in Modern Leaders

From humility and honor to confidence, communication, consensus, and more, George Washington possessed a rare set of traits that made him stand out, both as a general and a president. His leadership style was simultaneously down-to-earth and ready to rise to the occasion when needed.

Modern leaders can learn from this unique blend of self-awareness and boldness. And those looking for strong leaders for their organizations? They must prioritize these qualities as they search for and develop talent. 

As an executive search partner, I’ve seen leaders that span the gamut, from weak and ineffectual to strong and decisive individuals. If you want to recruit the latter to lead your organization, I encourage you to reach out. Working with our team at Stanton Chase gives you a partner with the knowledge, network, and experience to help you find, vet, and recruit Washington-like talent for your next C-suite hire.

About the Author

William Brewer, CCP, is a Director at Stanton Chase Los Angeles. He is also Stanton Chase’s Global Human Resources Functional Leader. Prior to moving into executive search, Bill had 25 years of experience in corporate human resources. In addition to his executive search career, Bill is an adjunct Professor at the University of Redlands. Bill also serves as a mentor for the MBA program at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and has been a mentor with the School of Business at the University of Redlands.

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