How George Washington Showed Leadership by Declining Authority

You can talk about leadership and power in the same breath. In the end, business leaders generally will be the final arbiters of most things within their organizations. The buck stops with them.

But, one little-regarded facet of leadership is knowing if it is time to decline to use power, knowing when to state when. It is important to understand that our first as well as perhaps greatest president, George Washington, enhanced his leadership when he declined to rule.

We forget, but twice ever sold Washington simply walked away for the nice of the country. First, soon after winning the brand new War, he resigned his commission as commader of the Continental Army to retire to Mount Vernon.

He wrote a brief resignation letter to Congress: "Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and happy with the opportunity afforded america of becoming a good nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my own abilities to perform so arduous an activity; which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven."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 is a fantastic move. Leaders like Washington didn’t simply step aside. Great generals, after great victories, generally stay, consolidate power and rule. They have the army, in the end, and that’s a fairly powerful means to reach your ends. David in Israel, Caesar in Rome, and, after Washington’s era, Napolean in France all showed 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 which actually prevailed in an exceedingly few battles through the war, yet defeated among the largest empires on earth. 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 wished to be considered a farmer again.

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We realize that he didn’t get the opportunity. Following the disaster of the Articles of Confederation, he was invited to wait the Constitutional Convention and was asked to preside over the proceedings. He didn’t even want to wait, aside from lead, yet everyone in Independence Hall who took on paper our Constitution appeared to feel the inevitability that the united states needed a central leader and Washington was really the only choice. So much so, that, as historian William Kladky has said, "the presidency was written with Washington’s honor and patriotism at heart, permitting him to define more clearly any office once he was elected."

Washington, as we realize, was elected and served two terms. But he might have been a president forever, if he wanted. At that time, there is no Constitutional prohibition against a third term, and several in the united states assumed he would continue steadily to run with death. Washington didn’t want that, for several reasons, not minimal which was that he didn’t wish to be accused of "concealed ambition" to become dictator.

Also, in a problem which 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 eventually change from themselves in Politics.”

Therefore he resigned, saying in his famous Farewell Address that his "predominant motive has gone to endeavour to get time to your country to stay and mature its yet recent institutions, also to progress without interruption compared to that amount of strength and consistency, which is essential to provide it, humanly speaking, the command of its fortunes."

For the next amount of time in his life, he was offered absolute power and declined.

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In history, such a move is strikingly rare. Not merely do ambitious leaders — running a business and also politics — seize power, often at all essential to achieve their goals, however they ride along on the wave of a constituency that often clamors to be led. People give lip service to seeking liberty, however they usually choose tyranny instead. The English Colonel Washington had in his near memory the annals of England’s fairly recent rebellion, when Cromwell toppled the King, and then setup a authoritarian regime that was, in lots of ways, worse compared to 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 a host where he didn’t have even to seize absolute power. He was simply offered it. And he said no. Twice.

It’s an excellent reminder for business leaders. They never reach actually seize countries, but, from J. Pierpont Morgan to Steve Jobs, we tend to be offered executives who rule their companies rather than lead them. In cases just like the turmoil at Zappos, employees quit a lot of the liberty they have in substitution for being in a culture that’s, actually, simply cultish.

Lost in this is actually the appreciation of the employees who constitute a solid business. Washington, in every he wrote about his decisions, discussed the good of the country — and by that he meant the folks of his fledgling country. He considered the voters, his constituency.

Business leaders ought to be mindful of the same. You could have absolute power, but true leaders don’t rule, but instead 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 real strength of the energy they hold if they stay their hands and do not wield it. That is clearly a management lesson only George Washington could ever impart.

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