Leadership: Has it changed since Washington’s day?

General George Washington astride his battle horse, Blueskin, during the Revolution, in a painting made a century after the war. Blueskin became a favored horse for artists but Washington preferred Old Nelson in battle because the horse withstood the challenge of fire better than other horses. You could say he had one horse for show and another for battle.

Leadership traits in the 21st century, have they changed since Washington led rag-tag troops in the American Revolution or are these traits universal? How do the characteristics of a leader serving 327 million Americans (2018) across 50 states compare with those George Washington used to wear down the British and win freedom for the four million souls in the thirteen Colonies?

Here are two examples of George Washington’s leadership during the Revolution:

General Washington waited impatiently for the ice to freeze the channel to Boston between the Continental Army and the British troops to allow his troops to walk or sled across. When it did freeze and he was ready to implement his plan, Washington called a war council with his generals to present a plan for “a bold and resolute assault upon the (British) troops in Boston.” (1)

His generals unanimously voted it down, feeling they lacked gunpowder needed to bombard and soften the British ahead of the assault. They were concerned that Washington overestimated the size of his army and underestimated the strength of the British. Reluctantly Washington accepted the verdict of his generals and admitted possibly his plan might have “miscarried” had he moved forward. (2) Chernow points out that Washington could be sensitive to public opinion (as well as the judgment of his generals), was jealous of his image, and willing to listen to others. (3)

Dorchester Heights Escape

Washington knew how to move men to understand their individual roles in history–“whether Americans will be free or slaves” would be up to them. (4) On March 2 his men began firing diversionary volleys at the British, who returned with eardrum-shattering cannon fire. Two days later the plan began to unfold on a night that was hazy below the heights with a “bright moonlight above the hills,” (5) perfect for the operation that Washington directed from “Old Nelson,” his chestnut unruffled by British fire and surefooted on icy hills.

Often, we tell tales of great successful battles, but great planning, commitment and a little luck went into a nearly impossible maneuver that saved Boston in March 1776. Washington took a day to assess how to overcome his desperate position. He talked with his generals and figured the meager supplies and ammunition available to his army, now holding the high ground at Dorchester Heights south of Boston, but without the firepower to prove dominance and damage the British.

He directed the digging of trenches and placement of fake fortifications and burning hay as a decoy, while awaiting the arrival of the Ticonderoga guns being dragged up the slippery ridge. All must be done in a single night to surprise the British and prevent the full force of British wrath from raining on the patriots. Covered by General Henry Knox’s artillery, three thousand soldiers, led by General John Thomas, coaxed oxen-led wagons up the ridge covered with ice two feet thick. Wheels were covered by hay to deaden the sound of huge cannons lumbering up the hill. When British General William Howe awoke and viewed the Dorchester Ridge on March 5, he saw a fortified position with the Ticonderoga guns pointed down onto his troops.

General Howe realized he could no longer defend Boston and in less than two weeks moved his base to Halifax, Canada, for the next five months. Before he left, Howe remarked: “He (Washington) got more work out of his men in one night than I could make my men do in three months.” On March 17, 1776, nine-thousand British redcoats boarded 120 ships, stretched nine miles out to the Atlantic, only to return in August to continue the battle for New York City. (6)

Washington’s Nautical Surprise

If they weren’t careful, the American troops would be destroyed before the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. When Brooklynites or commuters into Manhattan look down on the East River today, few think of August 30, 1776, when Washington had his force of 9,500 troops stuck on Brooklyn Heights. Liable to be crushed between the wings of an overwhelming number of British soldiers on Long Island (estimated at 22,000 divided along three paths). The size of the British force surprised Washington, who overlooked several dozen British ships docked or arriving in New York. He pulled troops from Manhattan, when he realized the enemy could easily overwhelm his existing troops.

As luck would have it, the direction of the wind shifted, which stalled the arrival of several ships filled with British soldiers destined to attack the patriots. Using the cover of darkness, British Generals Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis led 10,000 men in a column two miles along through a gaping hole in the patriot’s defenses leading up to the Battle of Brooklyn (Battle of Long Island). Patriot outcome: 300 killed and 1,000 taken prisoner. John Adams remarked: “In general our generals have been out-generaled.” (7)

Washington spent a few days considering the options before he made a decisive decision and spent much of the next 48 hours astride Old Nelson planning, executing, and presiding at the departure landing spot to oversee the operation. He had 9,500 men and determined from spies and campfires the British outnumbered them by 2 or 3 to 1. Washington estimated the number of boats and the number of trips needed to deliver his soldiers before dawn.

On August 29, he again held a war council at Four Chimneys, a Brooklyn Heights house with a panoramic view of New York Harbor, where the general gave him unanimous support for the plan. That night they would evacuate their entire force across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The men were told they were changing positions. High winds initially threatened the mission, reducing them initially to use smaller, steadier row boats. Cloths were tied to the oars to muffle the sound as the men rowed across the river. Washington kept campfires burning on the heights to conceal the evacuation. At times the overloaded boats were mere inches from the water, but the Massachusetts mariner, Colonel (and Ship Captain) John Glover, and his seamen exhibited their skill in ferrying the soldiers to the Manhattan shore. Before the mission concluded, the sun began to rise, but luck again brought in a swift, dense fog across the Brooklyn shoreline, covering the last few boats. Desperate men clamored across the bow to get into one of the later boats and refused to budge. Washington grabbed a huge rock and threatened to “sink (the boat) to hell.” Men rushed for shore and regular operations continued. (8)

As Washington’s boots climbed into the last boat crossing the East River, shots could be heard from the British. He signaled the success of the evacuation and they rowed unharmed to the opposite shore.

Washington’s Leadership

Balancing the ledger, while Washington did not boast of the evacuation, neither did he accept blame for the earlier lost battle. He argued the difficulty of predicting where the British would land, making it harder to defend a wide swath of territory. He criticized the militia as unprofessional for deserting in droves. (Granted he faced overwhelming odds, but that would have been a better excuse than to undervalue his troops as unprofessional.)

In the next campaign, Washington considered burning New York to hamper the British, but realized it would do more harm than good, since the city contained more than just Loyalists and Tories. He determined to fight a defensive war that dragged on. (9) The Treaty of Paris, ending the war, was not signed until 1783.

Compare Washington’s leadership skills to a 21st century list of the Top 10 Leadership Qualities that Make Good Leaders.(10) You can judge how modern leaders stack up to George. Make a scorecard for yourself or for the leaders of your choice.

John Maxwell, author of the more extensive 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, provides a definition: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” (11)

(1) Character (Integrity and Honesty) On most every leadership list these qualities rise to the top. Selecting the path of character is like exercising a muscle–by choosing the positive course a person strengthens their ability. Nobel prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in a Soviet prison camp, finds character at the heart of personal development.”The meaning of earthly existing lies, not as we have grown used to thinking in prospering, but in the development of the soul.” (12)

This points to a key element of leadership–fulfilling one’s obligations–doing what you said you would do–even when it’s excruciatingly difficult. Followers may lose faith in their leader if promises are broken.

Inspired leaders stay positive about the mission and calm under pressure. At one time leaders, even managers, who yelled at their staff were considered successful, no longer. Yelling repeatedly at staff or followers harms a leader’s reputation by identifying someone who has lost control of their own emotions–not the makings of a calm, controlled leader.

Just as Washington led the Colonies in the Revolution, President Dwight Eisenhower led the Allied Forces (US and Britain) to victory in the Second World War. He had never led a massive military operation before and had to overcome generals who doubted his ability. Initially he relied on his personal character. Eisenhower said: “The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.” (13)

Respected broadcast journalist of the ’60s and ’70s, David Brinkley, didn’t pull punches and defined a successful man as “one who can lay a foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” Overcoming obstacles, be they bricks or poverty or lack of education, builds strength that can last throughout a lifetime.” (14)

Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant, but morally complicated man who wrote “all men are created equal,” who kept slaves on his plantation, nonetheless gave a stronger endorsement for truth-telling, showing how he compartmentalized his thoughts: “There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time ’til at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it and goes without the world believing him(self). This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good disposition.” (15)

It’s easy enough for someone to say they have integrity, but if the words and the actions don’t match, then character is the missing link.

Personal Bedrock

Leaders, who lay a granite-solid foundation as a platform for life, make it easier to maintain a strong character. Followers are attracted to these people. Without this foundation beneath them, even the most charismatic leaders can fall into what psychologist Steven Berglas, author of The Success Syndrome, calls the four A’s: arrogance, painful feelings of aloneness, destructive adventure-seeking, and adultery. (16)

2) Courage and Resiliance apply to leaders who march out every day to pit themselves against an opponent, a machine or a problem. Certainly Winston Churchill qualifies. The British Prime Minister during World War II noted: “One person with courage is a majority.” He finds courage to be “the quality that guarantees all the others” but like many of us, he had to overcome his internal struggles and defeats to succeed on the world stage and pull others to stand with him. (17)

Leaders learn to believe in themselves and stay the course. Thomas Edison is remembered primarily for the light bulb (though he held 1,093 other patents). The discovery didn’t happen overnight, but required testing of 10,000 combinations to develop the exact right one that created an incandescent lightbulb–an example of the resilience and determination to succeed. (18)

A more contemporary leader, Billy Graham, said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man (or woman) stands up, the spines of others are stiffened.” It’s possible to just stand up, but leadership is the expression of courage that compels people to do the right thing. (19)

The opposite feeling, fear, can paralyze some people, but we must look it in the face, not retreat from it. Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady and philanthropist, saw the country at what was then its most vulnerable time. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along,” she said. “You must do the thing that you cannot do.” (20)

3) Vision and Passion grow from one’s experience. Walt Disney went to a dilapidated amusement park as a child and determined to make the best environment to entertain children and their families. His movies and entertainment world grew from this vision and his passion drew others to help fulfill his dream and continue to build it long after his death. (21)

4) Confidence and Intelligent Risk-Taking go together. If you’re good at what you do and know it, confidence comes easily. The trick is to keep from tipping over into arrogance or risky decision-making, which will ruin strong ties with followers and sully one’s reputation. People like Founder and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin’s search for ways to keep learning, growing, and improving every day. As Maxwell points out–“the man who knows how will always have a job, a man (or woman) who knows why will always be the boss.” (22)

5) Listening and Inspiring Others increases loyalty and offers the leader essential information about the work of others in the field. Persuading others to follow the leader may be the most difficult job. When the going gets tough, followers look to the leader to see their reaction to the situation. A leader’s positive approach should be visible through their actions. Staying calm under pressure will draw followers to you. Sixth President John Quincy Adams, after an initial career as a diplomat following in his father’s footsteps, defined leadership: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” (23)

6) Skilled Communication Taking a complicated idea, or a vision, and reducing it to common terms helps a leader define the plan. Words motivate a team and/or the public. The key here is boiling the message down into language that is easy to understand and difficult to scramble. Conviction makes the sale undeniable. “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” explained Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a French general who served as Supreme Commander in World War I. (24)

7) Accountable Decisions A key trait of excellent leaders is the ability to make reasonable judgments that are right more than they are wrong. Because of the impact a decision will have on followers, it is essential that it not be made in haste but reviewed with a few well-chosen advisors. When leaders investigate the options with experienced advisors before they act, and don’t become captive to the process, the chances for a successful decision rise. (25) Being accountable for the decision’s outcome is equally important. A leader gains respect from their followers when they take responsibility for the results, good and bad. When there is no accountability, it is easier to repeat the mistake or become stuck in a quagmire of failure.

8) Creativity and Innovation What separates a leader from a follower? Steve Jobs, one of America’s greatest visionaries, answered this way: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” (26) Today’s leaders need to be both creative and innovative in order to stand out from the crowd. Fast behind these two traits come goal setting to develop the steps making ideas real.

9) Empathy and Generosity Tragedies occur with regularity, a leader must be prepared to address these situations and show an open heart to those suffering and to their own followers and staff in time of need. Showing a human side does more than enhance the leader’s public relations’ score, it provides a moment of unity in crisis. London banker and philanthropist Richard Foster of the 19th century advises: “Just the very act of letting go of money, or some other treasure, does something within us. It destroys the demon greed.” (26)

10) Delegation and Empowerment A leader needs to focus on the key issues that keep the organization, army, or the country on track. If the leader is caught up in the minutia of the organization (and for example knows how many rolls of toilet paper are needed annually in the company’s bathrooms), then the higher level issues that need the leader’s attention will get short shift or no attention at all. So much better the empowered organization, where each person knows their role, the importance of their role, and strives to fulfill it to the best of their ability, knowing who to seek assistance from when needed.

So how did Washington do according to a modern yardstick? It’s difficult to make a precise judgment 230 years later. Yet it appears he did well across the board, except a slight fumble in Accountability, not accepting blame after the Brooklyn Heights battle. He gets points for not bragging about getting 9,500 soldiers safely across the East River in one night. Empathy generally did not appear in Washington’s wheelhouse, but that can often be true of military leaders focused on the mission.

Create a scorecard for yourself or the leaders in your life. Maybe you will select other areas to evaluate. Get back to me in the reply section to this blog.

(1) Papers of George Washington, Letter to John Hancock, February 18, 1776.

(2) Ibid. 3:370

(3) Ron Chernow, Washington, (New York: Penguin Press, 2010) p, 224.

(4) Ibid, p. 235. The issue of slavery had been considered in the Colonies, particularly Virginia– the colony with the greatest number of slaves–ever since the first ship came from Africa to Jamestown in the 16th century. Despite the fact that the words “All men are created equal” appear in the Constitution leaving little question about inclusion, the nation has struggled with those words. In North America from 1501-1867 (yes after the Civil War) a total of 12.5 million slaves were brought from Africa. First landing in Jamestown(e) in 1619.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Chernow, ,p. 224, 227.

(7) Dave Richard Palmer, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, (Washington, DC,: Regnery Press, 2006), p. 186.

(8) Chernow, pp. 249-251.

(9) Ibid.

(10) John Maxwell, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nash Publishers, 1999), p.xi.

(11) https://blog. taskque.com/characteristics-good-leaders

(12) Maxwell, p. 5.

(13) Ibid, p. 88

(14) Gordon Leidner, The Leadership Secrets of Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, (Naperville, IL: Simple Truth Sourcebook Publishers, 2017), p. 25.

(15) Maxwell, p. 25.

(16) Ibid, p. 5

(17) Maxwell, p. 37

(18) Ibid, p. 89.

(19) Maxwell, p. 41.

(20) Ibid. p. 41

(21) Maxwell, p. 44

(22) Ibid. p. 149.

(23) Maxwell, p. 31

(24) Sarmad Hansan, Leadership Qualities that Make Good Leaders, online download May 18, 2019, p. 3.


(25) Maxwell, p. 27

(26) Hansan, p. 4.