How George Washington Showed Leadership by Declining Authority
A Note From The Editor
Think your company has what it takes to make our Top Company Cultures list? Apply now.Apply now »
It's easy to speak of leadership and power in the same breath. After all, business leaders generally are the final arbiters of all things in their organizations. The buck stops with them.
But, one little-regarded aspect of leadership is knowing when it's time to decline to use power, knowing when to say when. And, on Presidents Day, it's important to remember that our first and perhaps greatest president, George Washington, enhanced his leadership when he declined to rule.
We forget, but twice in history Washington simply walked away for the good of the nation. First, immediately after winning the Revolutionary War, he resigned his commission as commader of the Continental Army to retire to Mount Vernon.
He wrote a short resignation letter to Congress: "Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task; which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven."
This was an extraordinary move. Leaders like Washington didn't simply step aside. Great generals, after great victories, generally stay, consolidate power and rule. They have the army, after all, and that's a pretty powerful means to achieve your ends. David in Israel, Caesar in Rome, and, after Washington's era, Napolean in France all showed that a skilled leader who had a dedicated army behind him could upend politics pretty definitively.
Yet, Washington was done. His role was over. He led a ragtag army, one that actually prevailed in a very small number of battles during the war, and yet defeated one of the largest empires on the planet. To him, that was accomplishment enough, and having a standing army or keeping the extraordinary -- almost dictatorial -- powers Congress had granted him seemed unwise. He wanted to be a farmer again.
We know that he didn't get the chance. After the disaster of the Articles of Confederation, he was invited to attend the Constitutional Convention and was asked to preside over the proceedings. He didn't even want to attend, let alone lead, yet everyone in Independence Hall who took in writing our Constitution seemed to feel the inevitability that the country needed a central leader and Washington was the only real choice. So much so, that, as historian William Kladky has said, "the presidency was written with Washington's honor and patriotism in mind, permitting him to define more clearly the office once he was elected."
Washington, as we know, was elected and served two terms. But he could have been a president for life, if he wanted. At the time, there was no Constitutional prohibition against a third term, and many in the country assumed he would continue to run with death. Washington didn't want that, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he didn't want to be accused of "concealed ambition" to become a dictator.
Also, in a concern that has modern resonance, he deplored the emergence of political parties, when he wrote that party-based politicians “regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons – Public or Private, – who happen to differ from themselves in Politics.”
And so he resigned, saying in his famous Farewell Address that his "predominant motive has been to endeavour to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes."
For the second time in his life, he was offered absolute power and declined.
In human history, such a move is strikingly rare. Not only do ambitious leaders -- in business as well as politics -- seize power, often by any means necessary to achieve their goals, but they ride along on the wave of a constituency that often clamors to be led. People give lip service to seeking liberty, but they usually choose tyranny instead. The English Colonel Washington had in his near memory the history of England's fairly recent rebellion, when Cromwell toppled the King, only to set up a authoritarian regime that was, in many ways, worse than the monarchy it had replaced. Whether you're replacing a Consulship with an Emperor, a king with a Reign of Terror, or a Czar with a Supreme Soviet, people choose tyranny wrapped in the rhetoric of freedom. Hitler, remember, was popularly elected by the German people.
So Washington faced an environment where he didn't even have to seize absolute power. He was simply offered it. And he said no. Twice.
It's a good reminder for business leaders. They never get to actually seize countries, but, from J. Pierpont Morgan to Steve Jobs, we are often presented with executives who rule their companies instead of lead them. In cases like the turmoil at Zappos, employees give up much of the liberty they have in return for being in a culture that is, in fact, simply cultish.
Lost in this is the appreciation of the employees who make up a strong business. Washington, in all he wrote about his decisions, talked about the good of the nation -- and by that he meant the people of his fledgling country. He thought about the voters, his constituency.
Business leaders should be mindful of the same. You may have absolute power, but true leaders don't rule, but rather serve their own constituencies: customers, employees, partners, shareholders. They serve through sound decision-making, not capriciousness. They act on strategy, not whim. And, like Washington, they show the true strength of the power they hold when they stay their hands and don't wield it. That's a management lesson only George Washington could ever impart.