Reluctant leaders: George Washington

In the second of the series, Paul Russell looks at the first president of the United States, George Washington.

December 23 1783 and a weary George Washington returns to his beloved Mount Vernon farm after the revolutionary war that saw him lose more battles than he won. Nonetheless victorious in establishing American independence, Washington could have been king.

Instead what he wanted was to be with his wife Martha and his two stepchildren, overseeing his many acres of Virginia land. But what Washington hadn’t counted on was his social conscience, and it was this that allowed him to be persuaded by James Madison and Henry Knox to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 whereby he was elected as its president.

Two years later and Washington was the first president of the USA. After eight years as a military leader, that Washington was reluctant to become a leader once more was clear.

On April 30 1789 in his inaugural address, Washington talked of becoming president saying “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties”, going on to state his situation in the baldest of terms: “On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love,” yet adding that this was from a “retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection…every day more necessary as well as more dear to me.”

Being able to be honest with ourselves and others about our performance as leaders lays the foundations for improvement.

What differentiates Washington and his leadership is perhaps his approach to power. It is not something that he courted, nor something that he was unfamiliar with, and it is this absence of enchantment with power that meant he never allowed the influence and power of his position to overwhelm him.

Abraham Lincoln said that if you want to test a man’s character, give him power, and in this test Washington prevailed, completing a second term as president before finally handing back the baton and returning to his beloved home.

As leaders this is something that we can all ponder; how much of our leadership comes through a genuine desire to improve and serve and how much is tied into our desire for the power that it engenders.

For Washington, the driver was always duty, so much so in fact that his fear of being seen as in some way profiting from the presidency was always foremost in his mind and no doubt added to his reluctance to lead, stating in his inaugural address his intention to “renounce every pecuniary compensation” limiting expenditure “as the public good may be thought to require”.

This speaks also of a leader who is mindful of his image and who wants to be transparent in his actions, all traits that are desirable for the modern leader. 

Also, a leader with a strong sense of duty can be motivating for followers, take Washington’s speech to army officers on March 15 1783: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Like fellow reluctant leader King George VI, Washington showed humility and self-awareness, saying in his farewell address of the 17 September 1796 that he was: “Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others.”

But Washington also showed a capacity for personal evaluation, something that can be very difficult to do as a leader, saying: “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.”

Being able to be honest with ourselves and others about our performance as leaders lays the foundations for improvement.

From Washington and his reluctance to lead, we can learn a lot about power and what leadership represents for us. Washington had solid leadership experience under his belt, he knew what it took to lead and create a positive culture yet he was also mindful of his capabilities and transparent in his approach.

Often the precarious scenario for a leader is the pursuit of power over what is right for a company or even a country. Better to retreat to the leader’s own personal Mount Vernon.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.

Read part one of our ‘reluctant leaders’ series here

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