What George Washington Can Teach Washington in 2016

What George Washington Can Teach Washington in 2016

With the 2016 Election season underway, the swirl of candidates and campaigns is drawing us into a discussion.  Behind the talking points and slogans, what’s on display is not just leaders or leadership styles, but underlying worldviews.

A worldview is an internal ethos or attitude that becomes external. It is a perspective from which one interprets the world and a set of beliefs one applies to it, which, in turn, inform actions and shape strategies. As each candidate steps on stage, it’s worth examining their mindsets to better understand how they will likely lead America into the future. While each of them undoubtedly believes that the United States should continue to play a leadership role in the world, if not an indispensable one, what that role looks like depends largely on their respective worldview.

Examining leaders’ mindsets is of great consequence particularly at this time. Our world is not just rapidly changing; it’s being dramatically reshaped. It operates differently. It’s growing smaller as communication technology removes the distances and borders between us. We have gone from being interconnected to globally interdependent. The final form our reshaped world will take is still uncertain, but it is certainly one where we will increasingly rise and fall together and strangers will be brought into intimate proximity. By becoming deliberate and choosing our leaders based on their mindsets and worldviews, we can take a more active role in shaping our world toward human progress and prosperity.

This July Fourth let’s take a pause from our new state of interdependence to genuinely celebrate 239 years of independence. Let’s pause to reconnect to our greatest ideals, which emphasize much more what unites us than what divides us, and let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made on the American journey our first great leader, George Washington, set out for us.

In this pause, let’s also reflect on the worldview that animated Washington as it is instructive and illuminating for the leaders of today. What we will see is that Washington’s unique gift was his ability to inspire others with the importance of higher ideals, generating simultaneous resilience and growth that continues to this day.

The lessons of Washington’s distinct brand of inspirational leadership are especially relevant for the growing group of presidential candidates, but they are equally critical for any kind of leader trying to lead not just a country but company, team, school or classroom in this world.

By studying what I consider the three hallmarks of how Washington led and how he faced the challenges of his time, we can better prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead as we continue our journey into the 21st century.

Inspire with a Noble Purpose

The winter of 1777-78 was one of the darkest periods of the American Revolution.

Beaten at the battles of Germantown and Brandywine, Washington had lost the capital, Philadelphia. Without options, he wintered his troops in the isolated countryside of Valley Forge.

Congress—also on the run—was no better off at their temporary country headquarters in York. Worried about other fronts and with Washington’s failures fresh in mind, congress ignored the general’s letters pleading for supplies.

As winter grew worse, the Continental Army languished without pay, food or clothing to protect against the elements. Starving, freezing and sick, the restless men questioned the purpose of their plight. Are you still fighting for “home” hundreds of miles from your farm and family?

If Washington wanted to stay in the war, he had to keep his troops together. But how?

Another leader might have threatened to shoot deserters. But Washington knew he couldn’t risk alienating his men. He couldn’t increase their pay, but he could have let them raid local farms as the British did. If the army started stealing from civilians though, they would be no better than their enemies. The dream of a demilitarized, democratic republic would be tainted right at the start.  That dream was all Washington had in abundance, and it was how he utilized it that held the army together. He had nothing external he could give to them. He had to draw something internal out of them.

That winter, Washington built himself a makeshift hut and stayed with his men despite the brutal conditions. He talked, trained and ate with the troops. On one occasion, they boiled and ate an abandoned supply of British shoes to ward off hunger. Through his personal dedication, he made it clear they were not just a military force. Through their suffering and determination, they were creating something larger than themselves.

By spring, more than 2,000 men had died, but, the army that left Valley Forge was tougher than the one that had entered it. They were unified by the shared belief that they were fighting for more than pay, or the protection of their individual livelihoods. They were fighting for an ideal that Washington had instilled in them: a vision of the country they were bringing into reality.

This is something all of us should remember. What elevates and inspires people is an ideal worthy of their commitment and dedication. Whether in war, politics or business, a shared purpose enlists and engages people more than the will of any leader ever could. With a higher goal in mind, any obstacles along the way become part of the journey to get there. Inspired and animated by the righteousness of their cause, people have hope and will fight for their mission through anything.

Stay Humble.

We usually think the Revolution ended with General Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown. It didn’t. The fighting was over, but the British fleet remained a threat, and 20,000 British soldiers held New York City, Charleston and Savannah. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the British finally retreated and acknowledged American independence. While this was cause for celebration, the war’s end left some complicated decisions to deal with.

First and foremost: now what?

With Congress divided and the treasury bankrupt, the Continental Army was the most stable government body. This presented a problem. The army—and by extension the whole nation that had looked to it for liberation—was loyal to one man: George Washington.

As the British left, some soldiers asked Washington to declare himself king of the United States. He already had all the power: the weapons, troops and name recognition. If Washington wanted absolute authority, no one could stop him. That’s why it was so surprising when George Washington resigned as Commander-In-Chief and disbanded the army on Dec. 23, 1783.

Washington realized that the greatest threat to the republic he’d helped create was himself. Rather than seizing authority and imposing his own idea of what the United States would be, Washington gave it all up. He realized that despite his role in it, the Revolution wasn’t about him. It was much bigger. He returned to Virginia and allowed the experiment he had made space for to play itself out—for better or worse. This earned him the admiration of his countrymen and even his enemies.

Just before Washington’s resignation, across the Atlantic, King George III was talking with the Painter Benjamin West. When the king asked what Washington would do with the war over, the artist replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

“If he does that,” King George responded, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington’s return to his farm was short-lived. Six years into retirement, the general was unanimously elected to be the first president of the United States. It was one of only two unilateral decisions the electorate has ever made. The second was electing him for a second term.

Washington’s resignation and later election demonstrates the paradox of power. When you try and seize or forcibly assert it, it flies away from you. If Washington had relied on a show of force to make himself a leader, history would remember him very differently. Given the opportunity to wield absolute power, Washington remained humble and made himself small. Instead of relying only on his own outlook, or trying to push his vision of what America could be onto everyone else, Washington took a step back. He didn’t allow his ego or his image to derail the revolution. He retired to demonstrate to everyone that the new nation didn’t need a King, it needed to do the hard work of realizing the Republican dream. More than that, he respected the people enough to let them try and maybe fail. The reason Washington won the presidency is because he didn’t covet power. People knew they could trust him to be in charge. This is a lesson that’s important to remember: real power is relational, it’s built upon a foundation of trust and respect.

Shape Shared Context and Culture.

Nine months into his first term, Washington wrote:

“My station is new… I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

One of Washington’s unique qualities was his ability to see the bigger picture beyond his present moment. For two terms, his personal mission was to define the nature of his office and establish a sustainable balance of power. He lived each day recognizing his actions would set the course for those who came after him.

While congress bickered about extravagant titles for their head of state like “defender of our liberty”, Washington insisted on just being, “Mr. President”.

It was Washington (not the Constitution) that created the Executive Branch. To this day, the cabinet system reflects Washington’s humility and recognition that a trusted team made better decisions than he could alone. Washington’s appreciation for other’s talents created one of the finest collaborations in American history: appointing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to his cabinet, laying the foundations for the departments of State and Treasury.

As with his military career, one of President Washington’s greatest features was that he had the grace to know when to leave. Unanimously elected for two terms and likely to win a third, in 1799, Washington again resigned to return to private life. While he was growing older– pushing into his 60s—the meaning of the action was deeper and more profound. He knew the example he was setting—that the President was a citizen among citizens, first, and a head of state, second—was more important than pushing a personal agenda for the nation.

Washington’s retirement initiated the tradition of presidents serving only two terms. In one act, he demonstrated that no single person could be the hope of the whole nation, and that no one should claim the role of “President for Life”. Washington was prescient enough to nip an early problem in the bud.  He retired to protect America from the presidency and what it might come to represent.

Real, inspiring leadership is about more than quarter to quarter success. Real leadership operates outside of time. Imagine if we all lead like Washington—as if our every action might become the new standard. Our actions and behaviors are the precedents that build context and entire cultures. Culture is one of the greatest, deepest influencers of human thought. By being intentional about the way you shape it, you can influence and leave an impression on people across centuries.

History doesn’t predict the future. History shows the direction things may be headed through implications. Things will likely go a certain way, because they’ve gone that way before. It’s a lesson worth remembering, because leadership, in my experience, isn’t about headlines. It’s about trend lines.

Looking back at the career of George Washington, a clear trend emerges. By recognizing that power comes through people, empowering those that empower you, and creating the context that allows for others to flourish, you cultivate lasting, transcendent power.

Over 200 years after Washington’s passing, this observation remains true. Greatness comes from character, not titles, and a worthy cause can extend past one lifetime through generations.

Today, facing new challenges in the early years of a new millennium, we need more leaders who are unafraid to set bold examples and, like Washington, point the way toward a noble vision of our future.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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