Without question, George Washington stands in history as one of its greatest leaders. How many leaders could have pulled off what General George Washington did in the American Revolution? Under Washington's leadership, the ill-equipped and typically outnumbered Continental Army endured countless hardships and many disappointments and yet it came out on top! In addition, Washington helped navigate the infant United States through its most formative years, refusing opportunities for dictatorship, championing civilian authority over the armed forces, presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and serving as the nation's first President of the United States. There's never been an American leader quite like George Washington!
Washington's Military Leadership
Washington's record of military leadership began in the French and Indian War, a conflict he helped ignite. While his eagerness, ambition, and lack of experience got him into trouble (such as at Fort Necessity), other qualities emerged which would foreshadow George Washington's rise to greatness. These qualities included:
- Toughness - Washington was, in every respect, a rugged frontiersman from an early age. He endured hardship on the frontier and survived several health challenges, including a major bout with dysentery. Washington was as hardy and downright "tough" as they came.
- Persistence - A lesser man would've resigned himself to failure and ignominy after the terrible debacle at Fort Necessity. Not Washington. He politically and painstakingly maneuvered his way back into the war as a member of General Braddock's staff, which gave him an opportunity at personal redemption and to showcase the next quality of his leadership....
- Incredible bravery - Washington repeatedly exposed himself to danger, at one point even charging his horse between lines of his own men who were mistakenly firing volleys at one another! During Braddock's infamous march and defeat, Washington was among the only mounted officers to emerge unscathed. Four bullet holes in his uniform and two dead horses were ample testimony to his courage and providential protection.
- Organization - Following Braddock's defeat, Washington was posted in western Virginia to protect citizens from Indian attack. Though these years were frustrating for him, Washington had to contend, on a regular basis, with matters of supply, morale, discipline, and communication. He developed critical experience in organizing and managing troops under his command.
By the time of the American Revolution, George Washington was widely respected as a proven soldier, charismatic leader, and accomplished military expert. In spite of his actual record as a battlefield commander (which included one minor skirmish victory and one embarrassing loss), Washington was the perfect choice for command of the Continental Army.
In the course of the American Revolution, Washington's qualities of personal bravery, toughness, and organization shone through, as did his mixed record in actual battlefield command. He had a tendency to leave his flanks exposed and, at times, tragically failed to reconnoiter the ground. Nevertheless, he maintained a firm grasp on the overall strategic situation and ultimately achieved success.
Washington's generalship during the Revolutionary War has been scrutinized by pundits and scholars, who often regard him as a mediocre tactician. They point out that he lost more battles than he won. Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father and George Washington on Leadership, argues (correctly) that war is "not the World Series." Says Brookhiser: "It's not the best out of seven."
Brookhiser is right. Washington was an extraordinary leader, regardless of his battle record. Brookhiser is not the only one who has written on Washington's leadership. James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, published a similar book recently. George Washington's Leadership Lessons is a good primer on leadersip and an excellent introduction to Washington's greatness as a leader.
Washington's Political Leadership
As the war entered its final years, Washington dealt with enormous fatigue in the ranks of his army. That his troops were underpaid (if at all) and poorly supplied took its toll in morale, creating dangerous situations of unrest. Washington's charismatic presence, moral strength, and political maneuvering kept the Continental Army from rebelling against the weak civilian government and the Revolution degenerating into civil unrest.
After the war, Washington was called upon to head the Constitutional Convention. His presence was indispensable to the document's ratification. And then as U.S. President, Washington navigated the nascent country through turbulent waters, positioning it to become eventually the world's leading superpower.
Washington's Moral Leadership
Washington's greatest leadership quality was probably his high moral character. In spite of the opportunity to seize dictatorial power during and at the end of the war, Washington refused. Even when it seemed that seizing full power would be the only way to keep the Continental Army from revolting, Washington forcefully declined and maintained his support for the official government of the United States. When the peace treaty with Britain was finally sealed, Washington resigned his commission in December 1783, formally handing control of the military to the United States Congress. It was one of the very few times in history that a person with such immense power voluntarily walked away from it.
Years later, Washington was of course called back to service as President of the United States. And yet again, Washington voluntarily gave up power by declining to seek a third term as President. Sadly, the years of service to his country took a toll on his health, and he died roughly a year and half after retiring to Mount Vernon.
The character of George Washington remains his greatest quality and it was fundamental to setting the United States on the right path.
It's hard to picture the United States of America existing today, without George Washington being at the center of its birth. So many things in our founding period could've gone terribly wrong, but they didn't, because Washington was there to lead the nation in the right direction. Remove Washington from the picture, and the picture gets very dark indeed. George Washington was truly the indispensable man.
In your opinion, how great a leader was Washington? And what qualities made him so?
Editor's Note: This post was revised February 9, 2011, to incorporate new content. Originally, it was written simply to recommend some leadership books focusing on Washington, but in light of some feedback, I edited it to include more content. Additional information on Washington can be found by reading my blog post titled "Important Facts About General George Washington."