On the day that America recognizes the original “Mr. President’s” birth, it is worth examining how George Washington became known as the nation’s greatest leader despite being an ungifted orator, a mediocre military strategist, and not a particularly profound thinker. The cynic in me has always been tempted to believe that Washington’s towering physical stature and other superficial characteristics merely made him a convenient figure-head upon which we could hang idealized virtues. But a study of the following decisions proves my cynical self is mistaken.
1. He decided NOT to run for safety. While still serving as a young commander under British general Edward Braddock in 1755, Braddock’s army was ambushed by French soldiers, and Braddock himself was killed. With no way of winning this battle, virtually all of the junior commanders fled in disarray—all the commanders except one. Nobody would have blamed Washington for darting off on his horse to save his own skin—taking the battlefield equivalent of a “golden parachute.” But that’s not what Washington decided to do. Washington risked his own life by racing across the battlefield to organize a safer, more orderly retreat of the remaining soldiers.
2. Washington decided to oversee his home renovations during the most tenuous year of the Revolution. Imagine leading a comically outnumbered, under-resourced, and woefully unskilled force where the majority of your teenaged army marches throughout the New England snow barefoot because you can’t afford to buy them shoes in a war that—if lost—could send you to the gallows for treason. Then in the midst of all this, staying up late at night sending letters home describing the right color of the new curtains in the living room. Historians are still puzzled about this one. Perhaps the only thing more puzzling is how he maintained the confidence and composure he needed in spite of knowingly facing such overwhelming odds.
Modern psychology might provide a clue to this riddle. Psychologists at UCLA and NYU discovered that after making a benign decision such as where to go on vacation and then making a basic plan for executing that decision, people show significantly higher self-esteem, confidence, and optimism, while feeling less vulnerable to completely uncontrollable risks such as earthquakes. Perhaps this peculiar, yet easily controlled home renovation project was precisely what enabled Washington to stay in the confident, decisive mindset that his leadership position and style both demanded.
Washington’s intuitive understanding of human psychology and emotions, and the way he put those instincts into practice is something we can still marvel at. It is commonly agreed that Washington’s greatest asset as a leader was his ability to inspire the confidence and alignment needed to gather political and financial support from so many diverse stakeholder groups including the Continental Congress, the American public, the French government, and his own soldiers.
3. Washington Decided NOT to make himself supreme ruler of the United States. After risking his life to lead the American Revolution—often bravely putting himself directly in the line of fire—Washington shocked the entire world by voluntarily returning all his powers to the American people and their elected representatives. It was a decision that even led his recently defeated foe, King George III to comment that Washington was “the greatest character of his generation.” We will never know whether this decision was driven by altruism or a self-interested desire to be adored by history. What we do know is that decision aligned perfectly with the pattern of decisions Washington established throughout his lifetime. He was an exemplar of what Wharton professor Adam Grant describes as “otherish”—people who are both highly giving and highly self-interested.
4. Washington decided NOT to forego his salary as president. No goal did Washington worked harder at achieving throughout his life than the goal of becoming a benevolent public servant both in reality and in reputation. So after becoming the only unanimously elected president in U.S. history, he declined his annual salary of $25,000. After all, what would history think about the one of the wealthiest men in the cash-strapped country accepting such a handsome salary?
Yet congress convinced him that this ostensibly noble act—like everything Washington did as the nation’s first president--would set an unshakeable precedent for the office. In this case, if he set an expectation that the president would not accept a salary, he was virtually guaranteeing that only the wealthiest people in the nation could afford to be president. That was something that Father Freedom could not stomach for the new republic, so even at the risk of minimizing his legacy of benevolence in the public eye he accepted the salary.
5. Washington decided to free his slaves. That Washington ever owned slaves to begin with has caused my cynical self to scoff at his supposed “greatness.” Yet, of the of the nine U.S. presidents who came from slave-owning families, guess how many set their slaves free? You guessed it—only one. Not only did he free them, he also made arrangements for the younger slaves to be educated and he set up a pension fund for the elderly slaves.
To a large extent, we are all products of our time and place.Throughout our lives, we will all be presented with a difficult choice to rise above that time and place. George Washington was great because he decided to do what others merely talked about doing. Regardless of how self-interested Washington’s motives may or may not have been, it’s easy to imagine a bright future for a world populated by people who view every decision as an opportunity to reveal an uncommon strength of character.
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