Leader Lessons from George Washington

By | November 1, 2018

[November 1, 2018]  After eight years of a bitter struggle, the U.S. Revolutionary War was coming to a close.  By 1782, General George Washington had run a ragtag army and, with the help of the French, had beaten the British.  The war’s end seemed in sight but there were problems within the officer ranks of the Americans.1

On March 15, 1783, an “unauthorized meeting” of Army officers was held in a wooden hall in the Newburgh, New York military camp.  Washington had not been invited but he showed up to express his dismay at the proceedings.  General Washington’s demeanor visibly demonstrated that he understood the challenges and frustrations of his men who had not been paid, had been ignored by Congress and were under great hardship.  You can read about his comments to those men (see link here for what we now call the “Newburgh Address”).

For us today, what are most important are the leadership lessons from George Washington at Newburgh.  Some of the most crucial:

  • Leadership requires character: Leaders of character display an unswerving pattern of conduct that has a positive influence on others.
  • Principled leadership is your compass: Washington’s core beliefs drove him to support the ideals of Liberty despite the frustrations and hardships.
  • Leaders must inspire: Washington inspired his officers by setting a personal example of selfless dedication to discipline and self-development.
  • Effective leaders build bonds of trust: He was able to tap into the personal bond with his officers and through this connection, change their hearts, and their decision not to mutiny.
  • Leadership requires loyalty: Washington strongly believed in the principle of civilian control over the military.  He respected Congress and would not stand for his officers blaming Congress for the lack of supplies, recruits, or pay.  He knew that for Liberty to survive, the people had to rule.

Sharing lessons from George Washington’s time may seem passé or, for some, inappropriate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The qualities of great leadership do not change over time or across cultures.

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  1. In the U.S., we often read about the American Army; the battles, the hardships on both the troops and civilians, and the diplomatic accomplishments and failures. But what we rarely hear about is the near mutiny of Army officers under Washington at Newburgh, New York in 1783.  This is where a group of officers met to discuss the payment issue and possible replacement of Washington with General Horatio Gates.  There was even discussion of bypassing Congress and establishing a military dictatorship.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

24 thoughts on “Leader Lessons from George Washington

  1. Bryan Lee

    Another good article that I enjoyed while sitting back, relaxing with my dog, and drinking my morning coffee. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for your insights.

    Reply
  2. Kenny Foster

    Another great article and I must say that I do appreciate the leader lessons from George Washington’s days as general of the army. Many of the things he did, like not allowing himself to be “king”, have traveled down through time and are now an integral part of our culture. Too many people fail to understand the link between a strong person as leader and a leader who can create bonds of strength. Being unable to distinguish the two is why American is getting weaker.

    Reply
  3. Big Al

    ‘Effective leaders build bonds of trust.’ That is one of the most important lessons any leader should take close to heart. That is also why we call some leaders ‘real’ and others ‘fake’. If you cannot build strong bonds between you as the leader and those who follow you, then you are a fake leader.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Mathes

      I agree and why so many politicians fail. They selectively build bonds and with only those they agree with. Great leaders build bonds with everyone.

      Reply
  4. Terri Issa

    I particularly liked your last sentence. So very true. Many, many could learn from this statement.

    The qualities of great leadership do not change over time or across cultures.

    Reply
  5. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    There are many ways to discover historical lessons from the past and this blog is one of them. Never to be overlooked, the failures and successes of great leaders of the past provide us with more than historians today are willing to admit. I like history. The reason is simple, I learn to make myself and my leadership better. Here is a good article that lists lessons from George Washington that is directly applicable to everyone.
    https://www.allprodad.com/10-leadership-lessons-from-george-washington/

    Reply
    1. Jonathan B.

      Yes, good link to a valuable article. These are lessons that children can understand.

      Reply
  6. Max Foster

    If you want to see how this plays out, take a look at how Harvard University has failed (along with many large universities) at leadership. Take a look at the 5 lessons mentioned in Gen. Satterfield’s blog post and compare it to how Harvard has dropped the ball on leadership. The biggest failure, lack of character among their leaders.
    You can find it in “daily favorites.”
    https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/2018/11/the-battle-of-harvard-yard

    Reply
    1. Willie Shrumburger

      As usual Max, you’ve pointed out some of the critical mistakes of leaders. Take notice Harvard, your leader days are numbered.

      Reply
    2. Andrew Dooley

      Harvard Univ, is of course, not the only university in trouble. I will give you their reasoning. They want to overcome past discrimination that put blacks and other select racial minorities at a competitive disadvantage. That is their reasoning, not mine. Now, they are doing it by discriminating. So this is why I say their leaders lack moral character.

      Reply
  7. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Very good. I’m a fan of American history and the time of the Revolutionary War and how it was won, is something that has always interested me and my students. Thanks for reminding us of the lessons that can be learned from history.

    Reply
  8. Army Captain

    The lessons from George Washington’s time, both as a General and as President, are invaluable. Keep ’em coming.

    Reply
    1. Lynn Pitts

      Yes, both as Gen and Pres. A fact not to be overlooked or disvalued.

      Reply

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