George Washington on Leadership by Richard Brookhiser

This article was inspired by Richard Brookhiser's George Washington on Leadership . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.


Leadership Lessons from George Washington

“Washington’s problems were the same problems that every leader faces now; the details have changed, but not the essence.”

Commissioned in the colonial militia by the time he was 21, George Washington learned to lead at a young age. Having left the army after a successful career as an officer, Washington oversaw 300 employees at his 2,500-acre farm at Mount Vernon. We can learn a great deal about leadership from George Washington, as he not only excelled in the military and politics, but also in economics. He would go on to become America’s wealthiest man for a time.

Becoming commander in chief of the American Continental Army in 1775, Washington understood the importance of keeping his soldiers healthy and in good morale. With his instructions, army officers built latrines to prevent unsanitary behavior. Washington also put out orders against “cursing, swearing and drunkenness.”

Washington also understood the importance of testing new rules. According to the Constitution’s Article II, Section 2, a President can make Treaties with the advice of the senate. Having gone to Congress for advice on treaties he wanted to form with Native Americans, the first President was at odds with the bureaucratic bickering in the senate, and he made up his mind never to consult the senators on treaties ever again. U.S. presidents have followed in his footsteps and never gone to the senate on such matters ever since.

Part of George Washington’s successes can be attributed to his flexibility as a leader and businessman. As a tobacco farmer, Washington took an unconventional, for the time period, approach to his fields. Following a drop in the price of tobacco in 1766, the future statesman switched his crops to buckwheat, corn and other crops. Good leaders know when to change.

Washington also knew to plan for the worst. Having arrived at Valley Forge, General Washington had his troops inoculated for smallpox. Though it wasn’t a perfect system, it gave his soldiers a better chance of survival than waiting for an epidemic.

Always attentive to details, Washington emphasized efficiency amongst his troops, fellow politicians and farm hands. As a communicator, George Washington assured that his writing and oral addresses didn’t leave room for ambiguity. Records show that he also put a great deal of emphasis on his personal appearance. Looking professional and assertive was important to him.

Perhaps most importantly, Washington was a good leader because he knew how to deal with other people. He had to work with eccentric characters during his days in war and politics, but he chose to see the best in people and the benefits they conveyed. His faith in skilled subordinates paid off in the long run. Rather than punishing British sympathizers and refusing to forgive Britain, Washington realized that the two nations wouldn’t be enemies forever. Treating your employees and opponents with respect will garner you great success.

Washington inspired his followers and set trends in business, military strategy and politics. Leaders can learn much from him.

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