America’s First Leader Showed How Leadership Is Done
During this February’s week that begins with Presidents Day, one chief executive stands out as an example of what it’s like when someone’s serious about leading: George Washington. You can tell how seriously he took it by the fact that he walked away from it. Twice. Ray Hennessy writing for Entrepreneur points out what we might learn from Washington’s unusual example.
Many people in leadership positions arrive there after climbing competitively up a ladder fueled by ambition or even ego, but Washington seems to have viewed taking charge as just being something that someone had to do. And it may well be that this reticence led him naturally to one of the most powerful skills a wise leader has at their disposal: Knowing when not to use power and to just let things unfold as they will.
The first time Washington decided that the power he held was best left unused was immediately after his victory in the Revolutionary War, even though historically, generals who win wars typically go on to build power and prestige during the peace. Not him; he retired. The resignation letter he wrote to Congress was short and sweet: “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…”
Shortly after heading home to Mount Vernon, Washington was prevailed upon to attend the Constitutional Convention, where it was assumed he was going to be the nation’s first president, a job that was deliberately constructed to let Washington shape it as desired once in office. With no term limits yet in place — they arrived nearly two hundred years later in 1951 — Washington could have remained as president until he died, but after two terms, he walked away, saying it was time for the young nation to summon new leadership.
So while a company isn’t a country, the basic principle is the same. It’s that great leaders understand the difference between ruling and serving, and how wisely forgoing the use of power can sometimes its ultimate use.