Today is Fourth of July and I am proud to be an American, grateful for the liberties of my country, and thankful for the beauty of the land in which I live. In wondering about the future of this great nation, I am comforted by its historical resilience. I also am inspired by the courageous leaders who, time and again, have shouldered the responsibility of keeping America prosperous and free.
George Washington embodied the two leadership qualities, resilience and responsibility, which I see as indispensable to America’s continuance as a leader of the free world. Both traits are well-documented in George Washington’s Leadership Lessons by James C. Rees. I have drawn upon his work in creating this article, and I highly recommend the book.
Great leaders are not immune to failure, but they refuse to let their mistakes sink them. As a general, George Washington lost more battles than he won during the American Revolution. Being outnumbered was not always to blame. Sometimes, Washington simply exercised poor judgment as a commander.
How did Washington bounce back from defeat? First, he managed his losses so that the British Army could never strike a decisive blow. Washington did not abandon hope, and he thus prevented isolated setbacks from sending him into the sort of downward emotional spiral that often accompanies a losing streak. Second, he learned from his losses so that he was better prepared for future battles. We remember George Washington as a commanding presence—the one man all of the Founding Fathers would look to when facing a difficult decision. In reality, Washington initially was plagued by hesitancy on the battlefield, waiting too long to determine a course of action. However, to his credit Washington recognized his flaws, and with time he consciously became more decisive when leading military engagements.
Questions for Leaders
As a leader, how do you determine whether to redouble your efforts to turn around a losing strategy or whether to cut your losses and come up with a new plan?
How have past mistakes or failures propelled you forward?
Whether male or female, black or white, Republican or Democrat, throughout history American leaders have exhorted the nation to take on the responsibilities that come with freedom. Consider the following quotations.
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
~ Thomas Paine (American revolutionary)
“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry is own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt (First Lady of the United States)
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (Leader in American Civil Rights Movement)
“In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic President of the United States)
“Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican President of the United States)
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
~ Ronald Reagan (Republican President of the United States)
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
~ John F. Kennedy (Democratic President of the United States)
In stepping forward as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Army, George Washington willingly accepted the most difficult leadership assignment in American history. Up against the most powerful and professionally trained military on earth, the British Army, Washington commanded a chronically ill-equipped, ragtag band of volunteer enlistees. He repeatedly suffered defeat on the battlefield and constantly had to guard against the despair and hopelessness of his beleaguered troops. Even with the odds stacked against him, Washington bravely shouldered his responsibility as general of the Revolutionary Army. Eventually he led the way to victory by demonstrating dogged persistence and by showing courage in the face of adversity.
Once the war had ended, Washington became the first President of the United States. Realizing his actions would set precedents for decades to come, Washington responsibly exercised his influence and restrained the power of his position. Most notably, he voluntarily resigned after two terms in office. By declining a third term, Washington modeled the peaceful transfer of power to subsequent generations of leaders.
Questions for leaders
What arduous or unpleasant responsibilities will you have to accept in order to move your team/organization forward?
As a leader, you’re constantly under a microscope. People are paying close attention to how you use the power and authority at your disposal. Who’s watching you? What do they see?
What I find heartening about George Washington’s example is that the leadership lessons he etched in history are so accessible. He wasn’t overly talented, nor was he blessed with an easy road to the top. Rather, he was remarkably resilient and responsible—two traits anyone can develop. In the words of historian David McCullough,
“He [Washington] was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test [the American Revolution], he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”
As we celebrate Independence Day, I certainly don’t have the recipe for getting America back on track. However, I do know that the resilience and responsibility displayed by George Washington are two of the essential ingredients.