3 Things a Young George Washington Teaches Us about Leadership

Like many students of leadership, I enjoy looking at how other leaders responded in their defining moments so that I can understand what they did well and replicate it in my life. Every now and then, however, we find a few jewels in the journey – the priceless examples that shaped leaders in their younger years and prepared them for more significant moments.

This came to mind frequently as I read Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of America’s first president.

I’m a big fan of biographies, and George Washington is one of my favorite subjects. His defining moments during the Revolutionary War and during his tenure as president provide all sorts of relatable lessons. But you also could write a book on lessons learned from his life before he turned 25.

Chernow provides an excellent book version, so I’ll stick with a blog. Here are three things I gleaned from the book that stick out to me about Washington when he was a young leader:

He didn’t let defeats define him.

The Battle of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754, was a disaster for Washington. At just 22, he was a Lieutenant Colonel in full command of a Virginia Regiment sent to battle French forces in the wilderness regions of what is now Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. The valley Washington picked for a defensive position was so poor that his Indian allies wouldn’t agree to fight there, and his vastly out-numbered troops were routed and he surrendered to Louis Coulon de Villiers.  

In later years, Washington somewhat pridefully defended many of his choices when describing that battle but, importantly, he seldom repeated the mistakes. He learned a great deal about the speed and cunning of wilderness warfare and about avoiding positions that might become death traps for his soldiers. Both lessons served him well as an advisor to other officers and, later, as the commander of the colonial army and then as president of the United States.

“Errors once discovered are more than half amended,” he would say. “Some men will gain as much experience in the course of three or four years as some will in ten or a dozen.”

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He valued his worth.

There is no shortage of wise sayings when it comes to the importance of valuing your self-worth and not allowing others to define it for you. One of my favorites is the idea that your value doesn’t decrease based on someone else’s inability to see your worth. But what do you do with this principle?

Even at a young age, Washington pressed for compensation and authority that matched his value. He was particularly bothered that lower-ranking British officers were paid more and had more authority than he had as a colonial officer who was defending British interests prior to the revolution. He didn’t always get what he requested, but he wasn’t shy about asking – and asking and asking.

He also was reluctant to take assignments if it was clear he wouldn’t have the authority to make decisions that would determine success or failure when he would be held accountable for the outcome.

“No person who regards his character will undertake a command without the means of preserving it,” he said, “since his conduct is culpable for all misfortunes and never right but when successful.”

He pursued a healthy ambition.

The fact that Washington, a man from modest family means, achieved so much in his 20s is a testament to his ambition. But he managed to define and pursue those ambitions in a balanced manner.

As Chernow writes, “The young Washington could be alternately fawning and assertive, appealingly modest and distressingly pushy. While he knew the social forms, he could never quite restrain, much less conceal, the unstoppable force of his ambition.”

He developed what Chernow describes as a “cautious, disciplined political style” that marked his leadership at every step in his career.

Jewels like these from Washington’s early leadership journey can be instructive and inspiring, regardless of our age. We’re never too young to apply them and never too old to learn from them.

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