July 1, 2016
George Washington— A Decisive Leader of Integrity
By Richard C. Stazesky
George Washington’s profound morality, unselfish nature and self control coupled with what was obviously a good intellect enabled him to out think all the other generals and Founders. Of them all, he had the best long and short range ideas and how to maintain coherency between them.– Richard Stazesky
Why did George Washington emerge as the most significant leader in the founding of the United States of America, even to the extent of being called the Father of the Country?
This is a question that inevitably arises in the mind of anyone who studies, even on a casual basis, the founding of our nation. Washington lived and worked with brilliant philosophers, thinkers, writers, orators and organizers, such as Franklin, Mason, John and Sam Adams, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, the Randolphs and the Lees, almost all of whom were far better educated than he. Yet at the three major junctions in the founding of the nation, the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention and the selection of the first President, for each position the leader chosen was George Washington. In his own day he was seen as the indispensable man, the American Moses, The Father of the Country. Why?
His contemporaries and subsequent commentators have enumerated many factors that entered into the selection by his peers for these three strategically important positions: physical size and presence, charisma, energy, multi-faceted experiences, charm, courage, character, temperament, being a Virginian, wealth, ambition, his reputation as a stalwart patriot and, especially after the Revolution, the regard, admiration and affection of the populace at all levels of society. The most commonly cited characteristic given for his emergence as the supreme leader is his character. The most infrequently cited, as far as I have observed, are his intelligence and his ideas.
The overall impression that many people have today, therefore, is that while Washington was a person of the highest moral character, he did not posses a first rate intelligence and he got most of his ideas from others, such as Franklin, Mason, Henry, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. A factual understanding of their respective ages relative to Washington and the dates on which his views were known would prove the fallacy of the assumption that Washington was intellectually dependent upon any of them or anyone else.
I want to suggest and argue that Washington was chosen for these leadership roles because of his character and also because of his being a genius in the area of leadership. They trusted him because he had demonstrated a noble and incorruptible character and he had also shown himself to be an exceptional leader.
In the remainder of my presentation I shall, first, briefly outline the characteristics of a highly effective leader, second, illustrate Washington’s genius as a leader in his roles as commander in chief of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention and first President of the country, third, note what contributed to his being such a leader, fourth, suggest why his genius in the area of leadership has not been widely acknowledged and, fifth, suggest some things we can learn from him for our own daily living and in regard to our country.
Leadership. For the purpose of this discussion I shall use a concept entitled “The Visionary Leader” which I came across some years ago. The visionary leader, first of all, has very clear, encompassing and far-reaching vision in regard to the cause or organization involved. This vision includes ideas and goals which remain constant no matter how long it takes to realize them and regardless of the difficulties which the leader encounters. Furthermore, the leader never allows any of the means or actions along the way to violate or invalidate this vision and its constituent values.
Secondly, the visionary leader is skillful in designing and creating an organizational culture which will make possible the attainment of the leader’s vision and ideas. In fact, creating this organizational culture may be the most lasting contribution of the leader for it will consist of the enduring values, vision and beliefs that are shared by members of the organization.
Thirdly, the visionary leader is also a person who can attract others to follow him/her in seeking attainment of the vision. But more than that, this charismatic person is able to instill in others the ideas, beliefs and values of the vision so that they become empowered to move beyond the leader’s and their own expectations.
In brief, the visionary leader has a vision into the far future, can develop an effective organization and can attract others to strive also for the attainment of his/her vision so that it becomes a shared vision and they all work together in an organization that sustains the vision, its beliefs and its values.
Another characteristic of a truly effective leader is that she/he always focuses simultaneously on two seemingly different configurations, yet to such a leader they are always inextricably related, such as strategy and tactics. goals and objectives, big picture ideas and little picture details, statesman and politician, profound and practical, architect and plumber,wisdom and application and futuristic ideas and present actions.
Of all the founding fathers George Washington alone demonstrated fully the threefold characteristics of a visionary leader and the intellectual and moral capacity, over a long period of time and in the course of manifold difficulties, to maintain coherency between long range ideas and goals and short term actions.
This is why, I believe, we can assert that George Washington was America’s supreme genius in leadership and thus became the Father of Our Country. Consider this assertion in terms of his roles as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army of the Revolution, the President of the Constitutional Convention and the first President of the United States of America.
III. Examples of Washington’s Leadership
A. General George Washington
On June 15, 1775, the delegates to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, unanimously elected George Washington “to command all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised for the defense of American liberty.” His commission, dated June 19, 1775, designated him “General and Commander in Chief of the United Colonies”. He received it on the twentieth and he started for Boston on the twenty-first.
It is clear that several factors led to his selection: his character, they knew that they could trust him; he was the best known military person in the colonies; he was a Southerner and the delegates believed he could unite the forces of all the colonies; he was a man of wealth and presumably would be less tempted to corruption and he was known as a fearless, determined and competent leader. Another factor of great importance, although not stressed or perhaps even acknowledged by many historians and commentators, was that his ideas in regard to British and colonial relations were well known and were representative of ideas shared by the delegates and those whom they represented. They shared a common vision.
Consider just three of Washington’s major ideas as the General. First, he must win the war, no matter how long it took. Second, it was a war for independence, liberty. Third, the purpose of this independence from Great Britain was to establish a republican, constitutional government. Being a republic, its form of government and its ruling officials would all be determined by the people.
Washington, more than anyone else in that period, understood the full implication of these ideas in regard to all aspects of his functions as the military leader – strategy, operations, tactics. He revealed himself as a genius in leadership as the “General and Commander in Chief of the United Colonies.”
Consider, first, his role as a visionary leader. I have already shown that Washington had the vision of an independent, republican, constitutional government controlled by a free people. He also envisioned this nation as contributing to the uplifting and happiness in the years, even centuries, to come of the whole world. (This vision is now being fulfilled as an increasing number of the nations of the world become democracies.)
As a visionary leader, Washington developed an organization with an organizational culture which achieved the goal of winning the war for independence. This, as Washington well knew, would be just the first step in the founding of a republican, constitutional government. During the eight years of the American Revolution, General Washington spent far more time, thought and energy as the organizer and administrator of the military forces than he did as a military strategist and tactician. Without Washington’s persistent, intelligent leadership, the army as an organization would have collapsed from within, unaided by British military might.
As a visionary leader, Washington also attracted both military and civilians to follow him to victory. He faced the realities of short term enlistments, desertions, very poorly clad and equipped soldiers, recalcitrant congressional and state legislators and wavering loyalty to the Glorious Cause among the populace. Yet enough soldiers and civilians so trusted him, believed in him, loved him that they stayed with him and his ideas.
Three pivotal episodes illustrate this charismatic appeal. After the 1776 Christmas day battle at Trenton after the crossing of the Delaware, many of the soldiers were ready to leave because their enlistments were up. Washington urgently appealed to them to step forward and stay with him in this noble cause. Hesitantly at first, but then almost completely, the soldiers stepped forward because of their trust in and regard for Washington. In that moment, he saved the army and the revolutionary cause.
The battle at Monmouth, New Jersey in 1778 also revealed his charismatic leadership and his genius as a battlefield tactician. In this crucial battle with Cornwall’s army, the American troops were in retreat and disarray when Washington took personal control. Lafayette said that “his presence stopped the retreat” and Hamilton also wrote “Other officers have great merit in performing their parts well, but he directed the whole with the skill of a master workman…I never saw the General to so much advantage.” The British retreated to New York.
By his presence among his officers at their Newburgh, New York, encampment in March l783 Washington’s personal standing with the officers saved the Cause from being lost, even though in terms of battles it had already been won. There was a conspiratorial movement among many officers because they had not been paid and recognized adequately for their years of sacrifice. Washington appealed to their reason but it was probably due as much to their emotional ties to him that, after his dramatic meeting with them, they affirmed their loyalty to the Cause and dropped all conspiratorial intentions. Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote: “Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and discord.” He then cited Jefferson’s comment: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.” (See Washington, The Indispensable Man, pg. 175.)
Washington excelled in all three roles of a visionary leader; he excelled equally in maintaining coherence between his long term goals and specific, current actions. We see this time and time again in his unfaltering commitment to the idea that in a republic the military must always be subject to civilian control. He made this clear in innumerable letters, orders, addresses and especially by his actions that the army must always act in accordance with Congressional decisions, even when he disagreed with them. These decisions involved such basic things as the selection of officers, planning of strategy and the equipping and paying of the soldiers.
The climatic action in this regard, of course, was Washington’s carefully staged resignation as “General and Commander in Chief” at Annapolis on December 23, 1783. The response of the Congress, written by Jefferson, noted that Washington had always recognized the civil authority’s supremacy over the military.
Paying tribute to President George Washington at his Final Resting Place, Mount Vernon, Va.
Washington understood the essential ingredients necessary for the establishment of a constitutional, republican government: control by the people, respect for the government, personal as well as public virtue and their inextricable relationship, respect for each other, civil over military authority and others. These ideas were not to be violated in the midst of a war. Thus, when soldiers went out to forage for food and supplies, they were ordered to show respect for all the citizens even if a lack of it might have facilitated a greater return from their foraging. Washington knew that the use of unethical and disrespectful means to attain short range gains could prevent the attainment of long range goals.
As the General and Commander in Chief, George Washington became America’s true hero and, to use our terms, America’s role model because of his exemplary character revealed with his unexcelled visionary leadership and his ability to maintain coherence between his far-reaching ideas and his immediate words and actions.
B. President, Constitutional Convention
As the unanimously elected presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia May 25 to September 17, 1787, Washington again demonstrated his genius in leadership. We must ask again, why was he chosen as the leader by this group which Jefferson termed “an assembly of demigods”? One reason, certainly, is that the delegates knew that the most respected, beloved and even idolized person in the country was George Washington. As on previous occasions, however, he was also selected for this crucial role because of his character and because he was a recognized leader who was skillful in reconciling various views; in short, he was a supreme politician.
I wish to stress, however, that he was also chosen because his ideas in regard to constitutionalism were widely known and were shared by most of the delegates. They knew that they could trust him not only because of his outstanding character but also because of his ideas in regard to constitutional government. George Washington’s thinking on constitutional issues has not been adequately recognized by historians and commentators. This neglect or lack of understanding has been corrected by Dr. Glenn A. Phelps, professor of political science at Northern Arizona University, in an excellent book entitled George Washington & American Constitutionalism.
He wrote, Washington’s “writings reveal a clear, thoughtful, and remarkably coherent vision of what he hoped an American republic would become. These notions began to emerge early in the 1770s, took on a sharper, clearer perspective during the Revolution, and changed little thereafter. His words, many of them revealed only for family and friends, reveal a man with a passionate commitment to a fully developed idea of a constitutional republic on a continental scale, eager to promote that plan wherever and whenever circumstance or the hand of Providence allowed.
“This interpretation challenges the conventional view of Washington in several others ways. First, I maintain that Washington’s political values changed very little over time regardless of who his ‘secretary’ was; the various messengers seemed not to have affected Washington’s message. He was no political chameleon willing to change his colors to conform to the interests and ideas of his brilliant counselors. The contribution of his better-educated ghostwriters, steeped in philosophy, certainly improved upon his stolid prose, but the substance remained distinctively Washington’s.
“Second, Washington’s constitutional vision – drawing on elements of classical conservative republicanism and continentally minded commercialism – developed years before he ever met Hamilton, Madison, and the other Founders under whose spell he was supposed to have fallen. Thus, claims that Washington was chosen as a mere figurehead for the nationalist movement that emerged early in the 1780s underestimate Washington’s contribution. The nationalists did not merely capture Washington’s growing national reputation to lend authority to a cause of their own making. Rather, they looked naturally to him for leadership because his views were already well known and firmly established. Indeed, many of his ideas presaged the nationalist program.” (pgs. viii-ix)
Some of Washington’s basic ideas were: a strong union, a legislature chosen by the people, a written constitution, the rule of law, an executive with power to enforce the law, supremacy of congressional or national law over state laws, a permanent national military establishment and civil control of the military. As noted above, these and other fundamental ideas were well developed in Washington’s mind long before the Constitutional Convention was held.
In terms of leadership of the Convention, he was equally effective as a visionary leader and a long range/short range thinker. His style, however, changed for he was a presiding officer and not a general. His influence and power were utilized in personal conversations, meetings with the Virginia delegation where he voted and sometimes was on the losing side, and when the delegates met as a committee of the whole during which someone else presided. It was a very well organized convention, including all sessions being held in secrecy with no disclosures of the proceedings to anyone else. The power of Washington’s presence was seen when a delegate accidentally dropped a confidential document on the floor. When discovered, it was given to Washington who sternly addressed the delegates about the issues of confidentiality and secrecy. The mere thought of any one of the delegates ever receiving his displeasure over this prevented any of them from ever claiming the document.
The success of the Convention, both in terms of its process and outcome, testify to the genius of Washington’s leadership, just as its final confirmation by the American people did. Historians and commentators of that day and subsequent years credit Washington’s and also Franklin’s endorsements for bringing about the ratification of the Constitution to be the law of the land.
C. President, United States of America
It was no surprise to anyone in the nation, including George Washington, that he was unanimously elected as the first President of the new nation and four years later that he was reelected to this preeminent position. Just as with his other calls to duty by the people, Washington was chosen not only on the basis of his character and leadership skills but also because the people knew and trusted his ideas and commitments. These ideas were spoken, written and lived out during the Revolution, many were already included in the Constitution and still others were well known.
Evaluating him as the first President in terms of the visionary leader, it is clear that Washington had a very well developed and coherent vision with both long and short range goals. Some of these ideas were: the absolute necessity and even sacredness of the Union, faithful obedience to the Constitution, the development of a distinctly American national character, establishment of a government that would be trusted by the people, the role of the federal government in the furtherance of industry, commerce, education and what today we call the infrastructure, the need in a republic for public and private virtue, independence from all forms of foreign dominance and the maintenance of liberty. Some of these ideas and others were presented in the “Circular Letter” which he sent to all the governors in 1783 at the conclusion of the Revolution, in innumerable state papers, in personal and public letters and they were emphasized at the end of his presidency in what is known as the Farewell Address.
Washington, within the sparse but basic stipulations of the Constitution, was responsible for the creation of a federal government. He did so and we live today with and by much of what he created. His skill as an organizational leader can be seen by his doing this as a strict constitutionalist and by his belief that Congress was primarily responsible for the creation of domestic policies and laws while the President was responsible for carrying out the policies and enforcing the laws. At the same time, Washington made clear that the development of foreign policy, including treaties, was the responsibility of the President. Washington carefully observed the role and authority of Congress while he also protected the role and authority of the President. We again see that he was a very sophisticated and skillful politician as well as being a well informed constitutionals. Yale history professor Edmund Morgan, in his little book, The Genius of George Washington, makes this very clear. He was, states Morgan, a genius in his understanding and use of power, including when to give up power as demonstrated in his
resignations as General and Commander in Chief and as President.
As a visionary leader President Washington continued to be a charismatic leader who kept the loyalty and affection of the people. He nourished this through his tours to all the states and through innumerable public appearances. However, when principle demanded that he act in such a way that would engender serious opposition, he stuck to his principles and in time the people, discovering that he had acted wisely, renewed their regard and affection. The two major events causing such situations were his declaration of neutrality during the French Revolution and his signing of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.
As in his previous two important positions, Washington was not only a supreme visionary leader, he was equally supreme while President in keeping the details of his administration, the big and little necessary current decisions, subservient to the larger issues and ideas at stake. The Jay Treaty and the Neutrality Act again illustrate this. Washington’s vision of a strong and independent “empire” required that the new nation be given time to grow, as he knew it would, and therefore, it must not become embroiled in any actions which would prevent this growth. Endless illustrations could be given of his balancing long range goals with short range actions in a coherent manner and are given in George Washington & American Constitutionalism and other books.
While the genius of George Washington was, as Edmund Morgan contends, in the use of power, I believe that this was just part of an even broader and deeper configuration which reveals him as our nation’s supreme example of the genius of leadership.
IV. What Made Washington a Genius as a Leader?
While no one can fully explain the factors that combined to produce a Washington, Lincoln, Plato, Luther, Edison, Einstein or any other monumentally transformational person, we do know some of the streams that formed, as it were, the mighty Washington river.
The first, of course, are the givens of life, that with which he was born. Most obvious were his physical characteristics – height, strength, energy and physical coordination. His brain or intelligence is also a given. Generally unmentioned as a given is temperament. Students of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator suggest that George Washington would have tested as an ISTJ. I have attached as an appendix to these remarks a description of the characteristics of an ISTJ given by Otto Kroeger and Janet Thuesen in their book, Type Talk, page 215ff. Ray Choiniere and David Keirsey, using a somewhat different typology, Guardian Monitor, describe how Washington fits this pattern in their book, Presidential Temperaments. His driving ambition, love of detail, patience, determination, sense of responsibility and other conspicuous traits that made him the person that he was are related to the temperament with which he was born.
Another contributory stream was that made up of family and friends – his parents, his brother Lawrence and the Fairfax family. His father was apparently a strong, humane and entrepreneurial person. His mother was obviously a very determined, acquisitive, demanding mother. His brother was educated, cultured and militarily oriented. The Fairfaxes were courtly and very affluent. Something from all of these and other people can be seen in Washington.
Religion contributes a great deal to explaining Washington’s profound moral consciousness and morally sensitive conscience. While he was very reticent to express any personal religious views there can be no question that his religious convictions caused him very early, as he once said, he had “always walked a straight line.” (See Paul F. Boller, Jr., George Washington & Religion.) His serious participation in Freemasonry may also have contributed to his character.
Henry T. Tuckerman (Essays, Biographical and Critical, Boston, 1857, pages 7-8, 10-11, 21-22) comments on this moral factor in Washington’s life and its relation to his intelligence. “The world has yet to understand the intellectual efficiency derived from moral qualities – how the candor of an honest, and the clearness of an unperverted mind attain results beyond the reach of mere intelligence and adroitness – how conscious integrity gives both insight and directness to mental operations, and elevation above the plane of selfish motives affords a more comprehensive, and therefore a more reliable views of affairs, than the keenest examination based exclusively on personal ability.” (See Appendix B for his full comment.)
Washington’s profound morality, unselfish nature and self control coupled with what was obviously a good intellect enabled him to out think all the other generals and Founders. Of them all, he had the best long and short range ideas and how to maintain coherency between them.
Washington’s deep respect for every person and his never failing, except on very rare occasions, good manners and self control can be traced back in large part to his internalizing as a youth the 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” It is obvious that these became second nature to him. Just as he did not have to waste energy and thought in dealing with moral issues so he did not have to waste them either in deciding how to treat others; he treated everyone in a courteous and respectful manner. Another stream entering this river was that Washington always sought to learn more in order to improve himself.
Who knows from whence these traits came? He was a great listener, he was a keen observer of people and events and he read far more widely and deeply than has been generally assumed. (See pages 213-225 in Paul K. Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington for an exhaustive account of Washington’s reading.)
More than a contributory stream and more like a small river made up of a number of its own streams was the river bringing the models Washington chose for himself. These he deliberately, systematically and creatively melded together to form the George Washington whom he then portrayed. He saw life as a theater in which we all play our parts and he certainly had in his mind the character that he wanted to play and did play. This does not imply any lack of personal integrity or a multi-polar personality. It does mean that George Washington, in a real sense, invented himself by creating an original model from several that he had in mind and then lived by that model.
There were, at least, four such models that he used. One was the Roman model of Cato from Addison’s play “Cato” about a virtuous Roman. Washington saw the play many times, memorized parts of it and had it acted at Valley Forge. He also thought of Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer, who left the plough to lead the army that saved Rome and then went back to farming, refusing the role of “Dictator” offered by the Roman Senate. (See Garry Wills, George Washington and the Enlightenment.) Another model was that of the Patriot King, a role made popular in Washington’s time by the English writer Bolingbroke (see Longmore, pages 184-86). The Patriot King always had the people’s welfare at heart. A fourth model for Washington was that of the Father.
In addition to these four major models, Washington experienced many other major figures who influenced him. There were the royal governors of Virginia, the landed gentry and their leaders with whom he lived and worked while in the Virginia House of Burgesses for fifteen years and British generals Braddock and Forbes. Washington keenly observed them and learned from them all.
Even considering all these influences, models and the givens in Washington’s life we still cannot fully comprehend what made him the George Washington whom we know through his writings, his achievements and what was written about him. The best answer, I believe, is that the Washington whom we know is Washington, the Father of the Country, whom George Washington invented and portrayed. He was a genius in this creation as one part of his being a genius in leadership.
V. Why now the admiration two hundred years after his passing?
Why is it that just recently, two hundred years or so after his death, are we coming to appreciate the depth and breadth of Washington’s intellectual and organizational contributions in the founding of the nation and the institutionalization of those characteristics that have made the United States great?
I believe that the answer points again to the fact that he was eminently successful as the Father of the Country, a title bestowed on him but one which he also appropriated and lived. A truly successful and effective father is one who never claims credit for his achievements in being the father and who inculcates his ideas and values in his offspring so well that they, in fact, do not realize themselves from whence these came; they, therefore, tend just to take them for granted or to credit themselves for them. We all know the story of the college sophomore who was amazed at how seemingly uninformed, even stupid, was his father, only to discover later how informed, bright and wise his father had become. The ideas that Washington had and lived became so imbued in American institutions and culture, because of his skill as a visionary leader, that we have failed to realize from whence they came, namely, from our national Father, George Washington.
VI. Learning from Father Washington
In the tradition of George Washington, perhaps, my personal interest in the study of famous people who have made major positive contributions to life has always been what can I learn from them that will make me a better person and citizen. I believe that we can learn a great deal from studying the life of George Washington that would lead to personal and public renewal if we were to apply what we learn. I shall mention just a few items.
One, the need and importance to take responsibility for one’s own life by controlling one’s emotions; Washington had a volcanic temper which, with rare exceptions, he kept under control. Washington was able to control so much externally because he first learned to control himself from within.
Two, the importance of constant learning by observing, listening, reading and reflecting; Washington spent much time reflecting or pondering.
Three, the importance of civility (the 110 rules), which means basic respect for everyone.
Four, the role that morality and emotional maturity can play in enhancing one’s natural intelligence.
Five, the ingredients of effective leadership.
Six, the inextricable relationship in a democracy between public and personal virtue; the absence of one will always cause a diminution in the other and vice versa.
Seven, the need in a democracy for all citizens to be good citizens and for the government to be administered in such a manner as to merit the trust of the citizens.
Today we urgently need a rebirth of the ideas which he had which made our nation great and a renewal of Washington as our prime national hero and role model.
The future of our nation, to a large extent, depends upon Americans both personally and publicly developing the kind of character so fully and brilliantly seen in George Washington’s personal and public lives.
Abshire, David, The Character of George Washington and the Challenges of the Modern Presidency, The Center for the Study of the Presidency, Washington, DC, 1998, 15 pgs.
Arnold, James R., Presidents Under Fire. Orion books, New York, 1994, 352 pgs.
Baldridge, Letitia, ed., George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Mount Vernon, VA, 1989, 61 pgs.
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Garrity, Patrick J. and Spalding, Matthew, A Sacred Union of Citizens, George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character, Rowman & Littlefield, New York, l996, 216 pgs.
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