George Washington On Leadership


By Richard Brookhiser

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Richard Brookhiser’s revolutionary biography, Founding Father , took George Washington off the dollar bill and made him live. Now, with his trademark wit and precision, Brookhiser expertly examines the details of Washington’s life that fullscale biographies sweep over, to instruct us in true leadership. George Washington on Leadership is a textbook look at Washington’s three spectacularly successful careers as an executive: general, president, and tycoon. Brookhiser explains how Washington maximized his strengths and overcame his flaws, and inspires us to do likewise. It shows how one man’s struggles and successes 200 years ago can be a model for leaders today. Washington oversaw two startups-the army and the presidency. He chaired the most important meeting in American history-the Constitutional Convention. Washington rose from being a third son who was a major in the militia, to one of the most famous men in the world. At every stage in his career, he had to deal with changing circumstances, from tobacco prices to geopolitics, and with wildly different classes of men, from frontiersmen to aristocrats. Washington’s example is so crucial because of the many firsts he is responsible for.


For Douglas Lenard

A Note on Style and Spelling
Although there were many politically savvy women in the world of the founding fathers (Abigail Adams, Adelaide de Flahaut), all the leaders George Washington met, and most of the people he led, were men. This tugs my style in the direction of the generic pronoun he. Twenty-first-century women will be savvy enough to see that Washington's lessons of leadership also apply to them.
The president did not have a "cabinet" or "ambassadors" in the eighteenth century, but I use the words because they are more convenient than "heads of departments" and "ministers," the terms that were then used. I sometimes use place-names (for instance, Indiana) that Washington never heard of, though when I am following his point of view, I try to use the names he knew. The Republican Party of Washington's day is the ancestor of today's Democratic Party (the modern GOP began in the 1850s).
I have modernized all spelling and punctuation.

America's greatest leader was its first—George Washington. He ran two start-ups, the army and the presidency, and chaired the most important committee meeting in history, the Constitutional Convention. His agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America's richest man. He was as well known as any actress, rapper, or athlete today. Men followed him into battle; women longed to dance with him; famous men, almost as great as he was, some of them smarter or better spoken, did what he told them to do. He was the Founding CEO.
Even at a time when entertainers and freaks commandeer so much of our attention, the most important men and women in society are its leaders, whether in politics, business, or war. In politics, the buck stops at their desks; in business, they are responsible for bringing in the bucks; in war, they plan the operations and command the troops. That is why it is always important to know how a great leader of the past navigated his life, and what a leader or aspiring leader of today can learn from him.
When George Washington died, one of his mourners called him "first in war." He got his first taste of the military at age twenty-one when his in-laws got him a commission in the colonial militia. His superiors found him a bit of a pain in the neck; his junior officers adored him, calling him an "excellent commander," a "sincere friend," and an "affable" companion. He saw two debacles, in which hundreds of his comrades were killed, and one great victory, in which not a shot was fired; he was assigned to defend an undefendable frontier. When he was twenty-six, he resigned, went home, and got married.
When Washington was forty-three, he got a harder assignment. Congress named him commander in chief in June 1775; he had angled for the job by showing up to the sessions of Congress in his old uniform. The American Revolution had barely begun. The troops he was assigned to command were local militias that had been renamed the Continental army; turning them into an actual army would be one of his many tasks. During his time on the job, he fought ten battles in five states and oversaw operations from Canada to Georgia to Indiana (then the Wild West). Between battles, he solved a range of problems, from smallpox to treason. Since there was not yet any such thing as a president, secretary of defense, or secretary of state—the government consisted only of Congress—his job as commander in chief embraced some of the functions of these jobs as well: negotiating with Indians and Frenchmen, buying shoes and food. Although Congress had picked him unanimously, and backed him throughout the war, there were times when individual members schemed to replace him and when Congress as a whole simply could not help him; he had to deal with that, too. In December 1783, after the last skirmish had been fought and the last negotiations concluded, Washington resigned in a simple ceremony. "The spectators all wept," wrote one of them, "and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears." Washington went home for Christmas—the first he had celebrated there in nine years.
His eulogist also called him "first in peace." He left home in 1787 to attend a convention of delegates from across the country that had been called to Philadelphia to revise the form of government. He showed up when he was supposed to, though there were not enough fellow delegates for a quorum ("These delays," he wrote, ". . . sour the temper of the punctual members"). On the first day of business, in late May, he was chosen to chair the meeting. The convention met every day, except Sundays and for a ten-day break in late summer, for nearly four months. Washington attended every session. Fifty-four other delegates attended at various times, of whom perhaps twenty did most of the heavy arguing and heavy lifting. The result was that the United States got a brand-new constitution, including a chief executive ("The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America" [Article II, Section 1]).
Washington got that job, too, in the spring of 1789. Many private organizations had presidents, including fire companies and cricket clubs, as Vice President John Adams remarked. But no country in the world, and very few in history, had been ruled by such a figure; everything Washington did was, in a sense, being done for the first time. He had more free time in this job than he had as commander in chief, spending his summers at home. But while he was in the nation's capital, he met regularly with his cabinet, and greeted the public at weekly receptions. He also made a point of visiting every state, at a time when travel was not routine (his Air Force One was a carriage). He performed some tasks that the old national government had performed, such as waging war and negotiating peace; other tasks—suppressing a rebellion, collecting taxes, paying debts—were novelties in American history. "Few," he wrote circumspectly, "can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act." Chateaubriand, a French poet and diplomat, was more effusive. What did Washington leave as his legacy in the "forests" of America? "Tombs? No, a world!" In March 1797, after serving two four-year terms, Washington went home for good.
Home had never been far from his thoughts, for Washington was first in business, and his corporate headquarters was Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation. Washington's family was prosperous, if not wealthy; his father owned 10,000 acres, most of it undeveloped, and a share in an iron mine, and sent his two oldest sons to England to be educated. But he died when George was eleven; instead of going to England, the boy would have to go to work. The same in-laws who would later put him in uniform hired him to survey their property, which was as big as New Jersey. The money he saved from his surveying jobs, and from his militia service, became his stake. When he was twenty-nine, his older half brothers having died, he inherited Mount Vernon, the family's main property, a 2,500-acre tract on the Potomac (marrying a rich widow helped him improve it). Over the next four decades, he added 60,000 more acres in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. Most of this real estate was held as an investment; he hoped to flip it at a profit to other investors, or lease it to tenants. Mount Vernon, however, was a working farm that was more like a little country: in the 1790s, more than three hundred people lived on it, more than worked for the State Department or served in Congress. Washington Inc., or WashCorp, was a complex enterprise that included farming, food processing, and speculation. Its CEO had to cope with overseas customers, changing markets, and deteriorating natural resources. Although Washington was often strapped for cash, by the end of his life he was able to leave legacies to twenty-three heirs and free his labor force, his slaves. He did better than many of his wealthy peers: his friend Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris was imprisoned for debt, and one fellow planter and president, Thomas Jefferson, died bankrupt.
At the climax of his life, Washington had fame and respect, power and honor, wealth and a good conscience. His long career had its share of disappointments and outright smashups, from lost battles to lost friendships, and Washington tended to focus on these shadows more than the average person, for as Jefferson put it, he was "inclined to gloomy apprehensions" (one of the subjects that made him apprehensive was Thomas Jefferson). But Jefferson also said, in his final judgment of the man, that "his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent." How did he get to be this way? How did he learn to do all the things he did? How did he become such a leader?
I have to admit, at the beginning of this book, that Washington never read a book like this. One of his young friends, Gouverneur Morris, the peg-legged ladies' man who wrote the final draft of the Constitution, was quite caustic about the relationship of book learning to leadership. "None know how to govern but those who have been used to it and such men have rarely either time or inclination to write about it. The books, therefore, which are to be met with" on the subject "contain mere utopian ideas." Since utopia is Greek for "no place," Morris is saying that books on leadership are good for nothing.
But no one is a born leader. George Washington had a long learning curve that began in his teens and stretched well into middle age. He learned from problems: from situations that he mastered, or that mastered him. They came in every shape and degree of difficulty. On one disastrous day during the Revolution, he watched helplessly as the enemy captured 2,800 of his troops, which made him weep "with the tenderness of a child." On a potentially more disastrous day, he had to talk his own officers out of a mutiny. "On other occasions," wrote one of the officers who watched him do it, "he has been supported by the exertions of an army . . . but in this he stood single and alone." As a political leader, he had to sit through six-hour-long speeches and tiny points of order. "Mr. Madison," wrote James Madison in his notes on the Constitutional Convention, "moved to insert between 'after' and 'it' in Sect. 7 Art. I the words 'the day on which'. . . . A number of members [became] very impatient & call[ed] for the question." As a farmer, Washington had to oversee men and beasts. "Such a pen as I saw yesterday," he wrote testily to one of his employees, "would, if the cattle were kept in it one week, destroy the whole of them. They would be infinitely more comfortable . . . in the open fields." It was the last letter he wrote in his life; how many hundreds—thousands—had preceded it? He had to learn things he did not know, do things he did not do well, and learn not to attempt things he could not do at all. He had to face unpleasant surprises and conundrums that squatted, toadlike, in his path for years.
He learned from people: people he worked for, and with, and people who worked for him; family and in-laws, comrades and colleagues, neighbors and strangers. He learned from a German who could not speak English, a whippersnapper from the West Indies, and the planter down the road. Unlike Benjamin Franklin the cosmopolite, he never went abroad, except for a youthful trip to Barbados, accompanying a half brother who hoped the climate would be good for his health, so he had almost no opportunity to learn from foreigners in their own culture. To compensate, he met many foreigners in America—tourists, diplomats, officers (both friendly and hostile) who came here to fight in two world wars; his best male friend was a Frenchman. Some people of foreign culture lived right here: he met his first Native Americans when he was sixteen, and kept meeting with them into his sixties. There was no person who was the sole model for Washington's life, but he spent decades picking up what he needed from whomever he could.
And, whatever Gouverneur Morris might say, and despite the fact that his own formal education stopped before what we would call middle school, Washington read: rules of etiquette, books on farming, generalship, politics, and history. Although he never read a book on leadership, early in his life he read a book on how to be a good man, by the Roman philosopher Seneca. His better-educated friends read the Renaissance political scientist Machiavelli, who did write a book on leadership—The Prince—that is the source of many leadership books today. He learned from Seneca, but was very different from Machiavelli and his modern descendants. He wanted to know how he should behave, and how other men had behaved in positions of power and times of stress.
Action and reflection helped Washington in the most difficult subject of all, learning from himself: what he had, what he lacked, what he might acquire. Everyone makes mistakes; mistakes happen. It requires effort to turn them into useful experience. Everyone has at least some good points. What are they? Can they be made better? Everyone has flaws. Can they be minimized?
This book is not a biography of George Washington but a discourse on leadership, drawn from what he did, who he knew, and what he thought. Since it is organized topically, not chronologically, a moment from his teens may be followed by a moment from his sixties (I will explain how he grew and changed in the intervening years). Since I am looking for lessons in leadership, some events that rightly preoccupy biographers and historians will be passed over. Others will be put under a microscope. Some events will be revisited more than once; a meeting in March 1783 yields four different lessons.
Washington's problems were the same problems that every leader faces now; the details have changed, but not the essence. Very few readers of this book will be revolutionaries or presidents; more will be in politics; many more will be in business or the military. Washington's solutions, and occasional failures, are invaluable to them all.
When George Washington was a boy, he wanted to make his way in the world. By the time he was a man, he was changing the world. History is full of surprises. Here is how a man whose situation in life was in some ways less promising than yours became a leader, and made history.

Part One
In 1799, at the end of his life, Washington wrote that his mind had been "constantly on the stretch since the year 1753 [when he was twenty-one], with but short intervals, and little relaxation." The problems of those years are voluminous, when described in detail (his most thorough biography, by Douglas Southall Freeman, fills seven volumes; his letters and papers, which are being published by the University of Virginia, are expected to fill ninety). But most of the problems Washington faced came in a few clusters: family groups of headaches, puzzles, and routine tasks.

ALMOST EVERYONE has some experience working in an established organization, whether it is a business, an arm of the government, a church, a school team, or a local club. But more and more Americans start their own businesses; new organizations spring up (and whither away) like mushrooms. What do you do on day one when there is nothing to do, because no one has done it before?


Much of the work of a start-up flows from the obvious goals and needs of the organization, but that doesn't mean that any of it will be easy or quick.
When Washington became commander in chief in June 1775, Americans had been fighting in wars for a century and a half—he himself had fought in the French and Indian War twenty years earlier—yet there had never been an American army. Individual colonies made temporary call-ups of militias, or citizen-soldiers, to meet emergencies, from Indian attacks to French raids. Now Britain was the enemy, but the basic situation had not changed. The New England volunteers who had bottled up a British army in Boston had as yet no common organization. When Washington arrived at the beginning of July to take command, his first General Orders cast a wide net.
He named the major generals who would serve under him (Congress had picked them). He asked for an accounting of all supplies on hand, from gunpowder to tents to kettles. He forbade "cursing, swearing & drunkenness," and ordered "punctual attendance on divine service." He announced the court-martial of a crooked quartermaster and the funeral of a colonel. He also discussed latrines. "All officers [are] to take care that necessarys be provided in the camps and frequently filled up to prevent their being offensive and unhealthy."
Congress had created an army of 20,000 men. Given an average diet and average health, they would produce about 20,000 bowel movements per day. There was no indoor plumbing in late-eighteenth-century America, but even if there had been, it would have been of no use to an army, which must live in temporary quarters and be prepared to move out suddenly. That meant there had to be latrines, also known as "necessarys," "necessary vaults," and "sinks."
So much seems obvious. But it was not obvious to Washington's soldiers. Most of them were rural men and boys, because that is who populated America. Though farms had outhouses, on a hundred acres one could be casual. But hundreds of men encamped on every hundred acres couldn't be. In battle, in flight, or in hot pursuit, soldiers do what they have to do. In camp, what they must do is regulate their waste, or disease is the inevitable result. Digging latrines is a matter not of decorum or convenience but of sanitation.
When Washington ordered "all officers" to attend to this problem, he meant, in the first instance, the generals who ranked beneath him, who passed the word to their colonels, the men actually in command of individual regiments, and so on down the line. One of Washington's youngest senior officers was Nathanael Greene, of Rhode Island, who would turn thirty-three at the end of July. He had enlisted as a private in a militia unit, then was promoted, thanks to political connections, in one swoop to the rank of general. Greene now wrote that his men were "void[ing] excrement about the fields," with the result that their health was "greatly dangered by these neglects." Therefore, he "recommended" that the officers of his regiments "put due attention" into digging and maintaining latrines.
Problem solved? Maybe. Washington had addressed the situation of the army outside Boston in the summer of 1775, and that might be enough. Perhaps George III would acknowledge the just complaints of his subjects and call the war off (America was not yet fighting for independence, only against the British government's tyrannical acts). Perhaps the British could be driven out of Boston before winter, by an American assault (the besiegers outnumbered the besieged, and Washington considered various plans of attack). But suppose the war lasted longer? The terms of enlistment under which most of the men served ran only six months, through the end of the year. When their time came up, unless they reenlisted, they would go home, to be replaced by brand-new men, including (in many cases) brand-new officers. Suppose the war moved elsewhere? There were thirteen colonies, every one of them accessible by seacoast or river to the enemy and its splendid navy.
No help came from George III, who declared Americans to be rebels; no attack was made on Boston (Washington's senior officers talked him out of trying). The siege continued, with the result that, after New Year's Day 1776, Washington turned his attention to latrines once again. "The regimental quartermasters, and their sergeants," he wrote in the General Orders, "are to cause proper necessarys to be erected at convenient distances from the barracks in which their men are lodged, and see that those necessarys are frequently filled up." Quartermasters are responsible for the logistics of their regiments, and sergeants are their assistants. But Washington did not leave the responsibility to them alone. "It is equally . . . the duty of the other officers to look into this business, as too much care cannot be used in a matter where the health of the men so much depends upon it." Washington also made inappropriate bowel movements a punishable offense: "Any person who shall be discovered easing himself elsewhere is to be instantly confined and brought before a regimental court-martial."
The British left Boston in March 1776. Washington expected them to attack New York, where he moved his army in April. New location, same problem. Nathanael Greene, commanding troops in what is now Brooklyn, ordered them to bury "all filth and putrid matter," and to fill up and redig latrines every three days. "The general also forbids in the most positive terms the troops easing themselves in the ditches of the fortifications, a practice that is disgraceful to the last degree."
Washington's army moved from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania, sometimes chased by the enemy, sometimes striking back. He won battles, and he lost them, but the battle for sanitation never ended. In March 1778, in Valley Forge, outside Philadelphia, he tried shame. "Out of tender regard for the lives and health of his brave soldiers, yet with surprise that so little attention is paid to his orders, [the commander in chief] again in the most positive terms" directed that the carcasses of dead horses be buried, and "old vaults filled and new ones dug once a week," with "fresh earth . . . flung into the vaults twice a day." After shame, he reverted to sternness. "No plea of ignorance will be admitted and the least breach . . . severely noticed."
One thing Washington needed was a structure, a self-replicating set of procedures that would automatically convey his orders about latrines despite changes in personnel and location. He got it from a new officer who had arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a German soldier of fortune who had enlisted in the American cause. Steuben had useful knowledge of European practices, and a flair for adapting them to American conditions. He and Washington hit it off, and over the following winter, Steuben prepared the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which Congress approved in March 1779. Steuben told the typical regiment what to do in the course of its daily business. "When a regiment enters camp, the field officers must take care . . . that the sinks [latrines] and kitchens are immediately dug in their proper places." He told them who should do it. "On the arrival of the regiment in camp," the adjutant—an assistant to the colonel—"must immediately order out the necessary number of fatigue men to dig the vaults or sinks." Thereafter, "the quartermaster must be answerable . . . that the sinks are filled up, and new ones dug every four days." And he told them who was responsible for making sure that it got done. "The preservation of the soldiers' health should be [the colonel's] first and greatest care; . . . he must have a watchful eye over the officers of companies, that they pay the necessary attention to their men."
Washington and his army kept moving and fighting, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and back to New York. Putting down the rules of latrine care in black and white was a useful thing—a word to the wise and a reminder for the careless. But Washington still had to keep a watchful eye on the problem himself, to make sure the written rules were heeded. "The Commander-in-Chief," he wrote in April 1779, two weeks after Steuben's Regulations had been approved, "as the hot season approaches, expects . . . vaults to be properly dug . . . and sentries placed to see that the men make use of them only."
What is obvious to you as a leader may not be obvious to everybody; if it's necessary for the health of your organization, then it's necessary for you to keep after it.


Establishing routine during a start-up can be easier than Washington's experience with latrines: both the goal and the means of accomplishing it are obvious, and people embrace the new job. But sometimes what everybody wants to do is wrong.
When Washington was trying to defend New York in the summer and fall of 1776, he realized he needed a "channel of information" about what the enemy was planning. Britain sent an immense land and sea force to Staten Island and New York Harbor, which cleared Washington out of Long Island at the end of August. In early September, he still held Manhattan, but he expected the British to attack him again, and he wanted to know when and how. "Everything . . . depends on intelligence of the enemy's motions," he wrote. "I was never more uneasy than on account of my want of knowledge on this score."
Nathan Hale, a twenty-one-year-old captain from Connecticut, volunteered to supply that knowledge. Hale was idealistic and handsome; no picture of him survives, but three detailed descriptions do, which agree that he was light-haired, blue-eyed, and well built. Although he was "fully sensible of the consequences of discovery"—spies were hanged—he thought he "owed to his country the accomplishment of an object . . . so much desired by the commander of her armies." Hale was to go to occupied Long Island disguised as a schoolteacher, observe the enemy's positions, then make his way back to American lines. His orderly didn't like the mission. "He was too good-looking. . . . He could not deceive. Some scrubby fellows ought to have gone." The orderly was right. Hale went to Long Island on a Monday, was arrested Saturday, and was executed Sunday, without making any reports. Hale failed as a spy, but his bravery made him the first hero of American intelligence, with statues at Yale, where he went to college, New York City, where he was hanged, and the headquarters of the CIA.
Washington approved the Hale mission because he had performed a similar one when he was the same age. In 1753, the colony of Virginia sent Major Washington, of the militia, to a fort that the French had just built in the upper Ohio Valley, in wilderness that Virginia claimed. He was to assert Virginia's title, and incidentally see what the French were up to. Because it was peacetime, Washington did not disguise himself and ran no risk of being hanged. But his hosts knew as well as he did that intelligence gathering was one of the goals of his visit. (The French, who were in a strong position, were not unwilling to be inspected.)
Two decades and one war later, as Alexander Rose, the modern expert on Washington's spies, writes, Washington had a simple view of intelligence, based on his youthful experience: when information is needed, send someone to get it and bring it back. But Hale's mission failed, as did others: brave young officers went into enemy territory, without learning very much, or died trying. These experiences led Washington to change his view.


On Sale
Apr 14, 2009
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Richard Brookhiser

About the Author

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of thirteen books, including John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, and James Madison. He lives in New York City.

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