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The Journey Inward: What Made George Washington A Great Leader?


February 28, 2019

(This column is written in recognition of President’s Day.)

One of the earliest books I read in elementary school was about George Washington. Of course, I remember the time young George chopped down his father’s cherry tree and when confronted he said, “I cannot tell a lie.” This was an exaggeration. Nevertheless, reading about his exemplary character made an impression on a willing and eager boy who wanted to learn about how to conduct one’s life.

George Washington as a young boy was learning how to conduct himself; he was affected by the school exercise in which he transcribed the “Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” which outlined ways to comport oneself in various aspects of life. His first rule was: “every action done in company, ought to be with some respect to those that are present.”

During his first year serving as the president of the United States he wrote in a letter to his nephew: “Good moral character is the first essential in a leader.”

He exemplified “moral character” throughout his time as commander of the Continental Army, presiding representative to the Constitutional Convention and first president of the United States.

Retrospectively, however, we judge that he suffered from many imperfections; for example, he has been criticized for owning slaves. Some historical revisionists have suggested that Washington and other founding fathers gave birth to the “great white male” motif in American history while the contributions of women and minorities have been neglected. Reviewing Washington’s flaws, one of his contemporaries, Gouverneur Morris, said that Washington was full of “tumultuous passions” and that “his wrath was terrible.” Morris added that, “his first contest and first victory was over himself.” This he did. One of his enduring characteristics was his equanimity in the face of opposition.

Just putting on the mantel of commander in the war for independence from Britain, which he referred to as “our glorious cause,” put him in great peril. If the colonials had been defeated, likely he would have been executed.

During the war he served without pay and was nearly bankrupt when he returned home to Mount Vernon after his presidency.

Richard Neustadt, president of Harvard University, suggested that it wasn’t his great military acumen, although that was considerable, but “It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men.” They knew he cared for them. During the extraordinary cold winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, his manner was “sacrificial” and he took great care to solicit provisions for his soldiers.

Perhaps his greatest leadership quality was his ability to unify opposing factions. At the Constitutional Convention he was surrounded by such luminaries as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who often were contentious when debating ideas about our framing documents. Washington became the arbiter of debate.

In the publication “Center for Work Life,” one commentator notes that “George Washington probably could have brought a lion and a lamb together on a mission with his leadership skills in negotiation — he hated it when people divided into hostile groups, and he tried to avoid taking sides during political disputes. As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he contributed almost nothing to the heated debates that took place. Instead, he used his considerable prestige to calm people down and get them back to their main job; creating a new form of government for the United States.’”

Former Republican Sen. John Danforth stated in an op-ed piece in the Post-Dispatch and Time magazine entitled “Two Models of Leadership” that: “Washington’s personal qualities were more significant for his leadership than any positions he held on the issues of his day. His rectitude was central to his leadership, and his presence counted much more than his policies.”

Might we draw lessons for our time by considering his leadership qualities? The following are suggested: even though a political leader may advance stated policies, without a spirit of equanimity and a search for unity there will be no peace in the land. Without the integrity exemplified by Washington, there will be factionalism, which casts people into different camps devoid of unifying principles.

Danforth proposes that: “Current political strategy is to discard the moderate center and energize the angry base…It is a strategy of attempting to win elections by polarizing the country, and it raises the question of what Americans should expect from our leaders. We can have leaders who rally us to a common purpose and hold us together.”

If we so chose, we will feel better about ourselves and each other. Loyalty to country increases in proportion to the recognition that we are people bound together by the vision of our founders.

Casting aside personal fortune and self-interest, Washington created an atmosphere of co-operation necessary to form “a more perfect union.” In his farewell address, he pleaded with Americans to hold themselves together as one people and avoid fragmenting factions. One phrase in the address summarizes this sentiment: “…and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts…..Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motive for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.”

No leader is perfect but by looking back at George Washington we discover a life well lived and ennobled by the ideals he followed throughout his life. We have been the beneficiaries until this day.

(Dr. John Campbell is a licensed psychotherapist and ordained clergyperson in Brevard. This column is a way to honor Black History Month. )


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