History is fascinating.  Though underappreciated by many, history can teach us lessons we can apply prospectively by looking at correlations between past and current events.  For me, history has always been a way of understanding the events of the past to interpret events in the present day.  The human condition necessitates that we will repeat the mistakes of the past unless we understand and learn from them.

We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.
-George Washington

The founding of the United States of America is forever linked to George Washington.  In an era where Britain had the world’s most powerful navy and one of the world’s most powerful armies, Washington led an ill-equipped, makeshift army to one of the largest underdog victories over the preeminent superpower of the time.  After the Revolutionary War, Washington presided over the development of the Constitution and served as the first President of the United States.

The American victory in the nearly 8 and a half year war would not have been possible without a combination of understanding constraints, evolving new tactics against a superior foe, capitalizing on enemy mistakes, establishing strategic relationships, winning popular support among the people, and utilizing situational leadership as the war progressed.  Washington broke the mold of the aristocratic leader of the time, and it’s a good thing because a traditional aristocratic leadership style would have doomed the American cause.

So today, on America’s Independence Day, let us look at some lessons learned from George Washington and how these lessons can be applied to your individual leadership style.

  • Sacrifice:  During the War for Independence, Washington often sacrificed his own personal comforts to advance the cause.  For example, while he was commander of the Continental Army, he voluntarily served without pay.  Be willing to show your people that you also share in the struggle and will sacrifice, if need be, alongside with them.
  • Leading from the front:  There are many historical examples to cite for this, like in New Jersey in 1777, where Washington led the charge into the British lines.  His courage, willingness to be in harm’s way, and not ask his people to do anything he would not won them over and cultivated a feeling of respect and admiration for the man.  Thomas Jefferson remarked “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern.”
  • Persistence:  As a military commander, Washington lost more battles than he won.  However, he was not discouraged.  He was willing to lose a battle and retreat in order to advance to save his resources that would allow him to win the war.  Additionally, he was able to understand the longer term goal and avoid the short term thinking that would undermine the ultimate objective.  
  • Understand Constraints and Evolving your Tactics:  In the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army had little training and gaps in equipment/supplies.  Knowing this, but also knowing the constraints of his enemy, Washington deployed effective tactics to either close a constraint gap or outmaneuver it entirely.  For example, when the Continentals tried to lay siege in Boston (1776), they lacked basic supplies like gunpowder.  To overcome this constraint, Washington employed a creative bluff tactic whereby he distracted them with harassing fire while covertly taking the high ground position with cannons and artillery.  Once the British realized that they were at a strategic disadvantage, they evacuated Boston and Washington was able to take it without a fight.
  • Communication, Collaboration, and Active Listening:  Washington had a reputation for being quick to listen and slow to speak.  During the War, he extensively listened to the council of his officers and this helped avert costly mistakes.  While Washington was not known for his skills of oratory, the positive impacts of his active listening and strategic communications cannot be understated.  Active listening is a powerful tool in your arsenal and can allow you to see blind spots or gaps in your strategy.  Empower your people to collaborate with you to make a more comprehensive strategy.
  • Integrity and Character:  While no person is perfect, Washington was and is revered as a man of high character and integrity.  Personal integrity is put to the test in times of great pressure and Washington was no different.  There are many examples of Washington passing the character test.  After the British had captured Philadelphia, Washington retreated to Valley Forge where his army spent the brutal winter of 1777-78.  This was a period of deep demoralization among the troops.  Due to the harsh conditions, Congress encouraged Washington to steal food from the nearby farmers to survive.  However, Washington understood that the larger cause would be harmed by this as America could not endure if it could not earn the respect of its own citizens.  The starving troops were impressed by Washington’s integrity and pushed themselves hard in training to ultimately achieve victory during the Battle of Monmouth the following summer.  Integrity takes a long time to build, but can be lost in an instant.  Never compromise your integrity.
  • Humility:  When appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he is reported to have said “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with”.  This exemplified his leadership style.  He treated his people, regardless of rank, with a level of respect and did not have a grandiose opinion of self.  He knew his success was tied with that of his people.

In closing, I consider myself a student of history specifically and of leadership theories in general.  With information technology and the ability to extensively research almost any topic, there is no longer an excuse to have blinders on in regards to history.  Current business leaders face an uncertain economy, an unstable geopolitical situation, fierce competition, and shifting demographics.  To successfully navigate this type of environment, there are strong correlations with the past in understanding the current environmental drivers.

As a corporate executive and former soldier, the story of George Washington and the inherent lessons within have had a profound impact on various facets of my leadership style and ultimately my life.  My personal story is littered with multiple industries, trends, and disruptions that have encouraged personal resiliency, flexibility, and the ability to quickly pivot in order to become successful.  In keeping on top of these various trends, an understanding of history has provided a powerful tool in my toolkit and I strongly espouse the benefits studying history has with my continued success.

Jonathan Ozovek

Study the past if you would define the future.

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