What George Knew About Leadership Development


On the eve of the USA’s 236th birthday, some lessons from its humble beginnings are still relevant today.  As a student of leadership, I find the group collaboration and organizational design principles of the Founding Fathers fascinating. Today, I reflect on two leadership development lessons to prepare America’s first President still relevant to organizations today.

Experiences, especially hardship experiences, are the best development for leaders

When George Washington was appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, he was charged with leading a hastily formed force, poorly prepared and ill equipped, against the best trained and equipped military of the time. As he wrote in January 1776: The reflection upon my current situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour…few know the predicament we are in. Not withstanding the challenges Washington had overcome earlier in life, his appointment as Commander in Chief was undoubtedly his greatest challenge.

We don’t have full insight about what Washington learned about leading the Continental army that prepared him for his role as the first president of the United States.  In lieu of a guest blog featuring George, I’ll offer a few good guesses.  He learned how to relate to the conflicting attitudes and cultures among the thirteen states he led. He learned how to build alliances, especially with Congress. He capitalized on a deep reservoir of good will among his citizens. He deepened his discipline and tolerance for hardship. Did Washington want all of the hardship he encountered? In his own words, no. Washington wrote at a low point: Could I have foreseen what I have and expect to experience, no consideration upon the earth should have induced me to accept this command. Did it prepare him for the Presidency in a way no other could? Absolutely.

The “Born or Made” Debate

Opinions about whether leaders are born or made spark energetic debate. Put me in the leaders are made camp. And, leaders are made mostly from aggregate experiences. People may be born with desirable leadership attributes that provide a head start on their leadership journey, i.e. intelligence, an optimistic disposition, and native curiosity. These gifts can be developed through great education. But does leadership skill matter unless it’s used? How do we know someone can lead until they do? More importantly, how do they know they can lead until they do? Experience, especially difficult ones, put our leadership gifts to the test and turbo charge them with personal meaning.

For anyone interested, The Center for Creative Leadership offers interesting research into the “born” or “made” leadership development debate. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/AreLeadersBornOrMade.pdf

 Develop the Talent You Have Instead of Chasing Stars

Washington presented an unlikely resume for appointment as Commander in Chief. His only significant prior military experience was fighting for the British army under General Braddock’s ugly defeat in the French and Indian Wars. Away from the military for 15 years, his passions included architecture, landscape design and the theatre. He had never led anything larger than a regiment, nor led an army into battle. Washington wrote upon his appointment: But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it be remembered…that this day I declare with utmost sincerity that I do not feel myself equal to the command I (am) honored with.

This less than ideal first Commander in Chief had qualities beyond deep military experience that served him well in his new assignment. He was a congressional insider. His political experience and savvy allowed him to navigate competing interests in Congress and among the colonies. He understood how the system worked. His passion for architecture contributed to a keen sense of design and detail. His experience as a surveyor came in handy in drawing battle plans. His love of the theater and acting gave him a model to “act the part of a Commander” when needed to the rag tag troops he led. Congress could have appointed better-trained Generals, but one could argue it was Washington’s intangible traits that contributed most to his success.

Would Your Organization Have Passed on George Washington?

How many organizations today would have passed on General Washington? He had neither the perfect pedigree nor resume for their needs. They would continue their search for the hypothetical star for their high-risk placement.  I can imagine the arguments for this approach: Not George. We’ve never fought a war like this. He’s not ready. Can’t we find someone with a formal education? We need to turn this over to someone with the experience to get it done fastThey would have fallen under the misconception that the unknown star is less of a risk than the unproven talent they know.

Booz and Company recently released research regarding success rates of CEO’s.  It shows while the majority of CEO placements still favor insiders, the rate of external placements continues to increase at a rapid rate. This suggests some feel it’s a safer bet to place someone with previous chief executive experience. Those who want culture change place bets that an outsider will arrive with new thinking and impose it from the top.

Despite the allure of placing a perfect candidate to head the organization, the research from Booz and Company suggests otherwise. Outsider CEO’s are almost twice as likely to be forced out than insiders. Insiders produce greater results as measured by market returns and have a longer tenure. Some cases show they produce more internal change than outsiders. Why? Like General Washington, they know the players. They know the challenge. They know how the system works. They are ready for battle.

See the Booz & Company study on CEO succession at http://www.booz.com/

In closing, I’ll disclose that I don’t believe the USA’s founding fathers got everything right. Their views on slavery, citizenship equity for Blacks and women and the treatment of American Indians caused profound lasting damage. On the other hand, they got many things right. From that, we can still use two vital lessons about developing leaders.


All quotes from George Washington’s writings are from:

McCullough, D. (2005). 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster