Three Important Lessons From Washington and 1776

February 23, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

Lesson 1: The responsibility of persons in position of high leadership is to the objective.

Washington was often criticized for not being decisive and forceful as some would have assumed he should. “Had I the powers, I could do you much good” (McCullough, 2005, 245) commented General Lee (second in command) to a member of Congress, thus intimating a dictatorial need in the Commander and Chief. However, Washington was circumspect in his authority being careful not to stretch the latitude of authority given by Congress, lest he be thought to be a dictator. The study of Washington’s leadership produces insight for modern chief executives and senior leaders regarding their high position and how to dispatch duty within the framework of a business objective while retaining moral accountability. After devastating losses in New York, and while in full retreat, Congress ultimately deposited onto Washington full powers to operate the war as he saw fit. In response he said:

“Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established” (McCullough, 2005, p. 286).

Thus the character of Washington is clearly established as a person focused on the objective – his duty and social responsibility, and not on position, power, or personal gain.

Lesson 2: Passion, belief, perseverance, and commitment are requisite leadership traits.

Some people are loyal to a cause; some are loyal to a position. A striking example of this is found when comparing Benjamin Thomson with Nathanael Greene. Both requested a commission in the American Army and were refused. Thomson consequently defected and served in the British Army (McCullough, 2005, p. 32). Greene chose to enlist as a private in the continental army, preferring the cause over the title (McCullough, 2005, p. 23). Within a short period of time Greene proved his ability and was ultimately promoted to Colonel and eventually General. He ended the war as one of Washington’s key officers, and like Washington, served the entire duration of the war. Greene had profound influence on the success of the revolution.

Lesson 3: Leadership is the art of executing goals and objectives through the efforts of others.

The Continental Army lacked all of the professionalism and experience which embodied the British forces. Yet, Washington understood two fundamental principles of leadership that proved invaluable. First, he developed the talent available to him including subordinate officers and an untrained army. He said “make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish” (McCullough, 2005, p. 256). Second, he understood that people cannot be forced; they must be inspired if the best work is expected. Furthermore, he said: “Leaders can instill great confidence […] troops properly inspired […]will often exceed expectation or the limits of probability” (McCullough, 2005, p. 284). He also said “a people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove” (McCullough, 2005, p. 293). It was through his presence, his passion, his commitment, and his unwillingness to give up even when threatened with the worst of outcomes, that motivated soldiers to outlast and ultimately out-maneuver the richest and best trained force in the 18th century world. Grooming resources to maximize talents and minimize deficiencies is the responsibility of a good leader and manager (Drucker, 2001, p. 10). Washington displayed the special knack of understanding the nature of his men. A point that must not be overlooked when contemplating the execution of goals and objectives through leadership techniques.


Drucker, P. (2001). The essential Drucker: Selections from the management works of Peter F. Drucker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

McCullough, D. (2005). 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gordon E. Whitehead
Dr. Gordon E. Whitehead is a leader with experience in business management, business development, information technology, and bringing new products to market. He graduated from George Fox University, a private liberal arts university in Newberg, Oregon, with a Doctorate in Management and as a Richter Scholar. His professional highlights include: United Sates Marine Corps Captain, Director of IT at Nike, Varsity Football Offensive Coordinator for a championship team, Head Varsity Girls Basketball Coach, and an Assistant Varsity Baseball Coach. He is an experienced business leader in technology, business development, and organizational management.

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