George Washington Leadership
First American president (pictured right) who defeated the British in the American
War of Independence, 1775-83).
His family emigrated from the North of England in 1709.
For more detail see...
The American Declaration of
Independence in the History Highlights section.
Why was he a great
1. Love and respect
People loved him because of his:
- honesty, humility and humour.
- kindness (forgiving his political enemies).
- empathy (seeing other people’s point of view).
As soon as he became president, he made a nationwide tour introducing himself to ordinary
people and listening to what they wanted.
He was so respected by his troops that they accepted his tough discipline (see point 4), and
didn’t mutiny when they were unpaid.
He made them feel good by:
- not telling them all his problems.
- appointing the first ever press officer in an army to give out good news.
Before the crossing of the Delaware River (pictured right above in Emanuel Leutze's
painting), he inspired his demoralized troops with the reading of Thomas Paine's revolutionary pamphlet, The
2. Learning and self-improvement
Washington (pictured right aged 40) was a self-made man, who continually learned from his
experience and mistakes including his early defeats in the war.
“To err is natural, to rectify error is glory”, he said.
3. Integrity and principle
He was a good man who lived by his principles: freedom and justice for all Americans,
compassion and honesty.
One legend (probably untrue) describes him as a six-year- old admitting to his father that he had killed a
little cherry tree. “You know I can’t tell a lie”, he said.
He was absolutely certain that the war against the British was right and just.
“We are only defending what we deem our indisputable right”, he told his army, and “you
are free men, fighting for the blessings of liberty”.
He instilled discipline into his army by introducing new rules and regulations, fiercely
enforced by flogging or (for cowardice) death.
“Discipline is the soul of an army”, he said.
He was particularly tough on cowardice, betraying friends, and failure to admit mistakes or do your duty.
“Conquer or die”, he told his army in 1776.
He showed his troops concern but kept his distance. “Be easy, but not too
familiar” was his policy.
5. Purpose, consensus and caution
His main aim was to preserve the unity and freedom of the American
So he avoided “foreign entanglements” and extremes in domestic policy, standing above the petty squabbles of
His first Cabinet included people from each main political party to keep them united, but Thomas Jefferson (pictured right) resigned in 1794 over
a policy disagreement.
Washington wanted to be the best in everything he did, because of his fear of failure and
letting people down.
So he never took unnecessary risks and preferred action based on reasoned argument
rather than instinct.
He didn’t want to be either commander-in-chief or president, preferring the quiet life on his beautiful
Virginian farm and mansion, Mount Vernon.
But he did both jobs and risked everything, because his country needed him.
“I consider myself to have done only my duty”, he said after his final victory over the British
at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, pictured right firing the first shot.
7. Self-control and determination
He controlled his temper and natural aggression.
His calm dignity came from his belief that a leader should look and act like one and be
calm in a crisis. His dignity was reinforced by his high social status, immaculate dress and physique (see point
He persevered through bad times and good to give America democracy and its
He rarely showed any despair or discouragement, even in the desperate times of January 1776 when he had an
undisciplined army with no money to pay them and little gunpowder.
“Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages”, he said.
He was tall, strong, and the best horseman of his age, according to Thomas Jefferson.
He loved hunting which gave him great stamina.
He had no fear under fire.
“I heard the bullets whistle and believe me there is something charming in the sound”, he said
as a young army officer.
10. Self-knowledge and realism
He was always aware of his strengths and limitations, facing reality and avoiding
His loving wife, Martha, pictured right, helped him in troubled times.
As a young army officer, he learned to adapt his plans to changing circumstances.
He had a great eye for detail and the ability to see the bigger picture i.e. how the detail helped to achieve
his main aims like winning the war.
He always made sure people concentrated on these aims.
Key quote on
Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.
Key quote on war
To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.
Key quote on the learning
We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors.
Key quote on
Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.
Key quotes on
Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.
I have no other view but to promote the public good.
Key quote on
Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.
Key quote on business
A people... who are possessed of the spirit of commerce who see and who will pursue their advantages may achieve
Key quote on
Morality is a necessary spring of popular government.