The Secret Octane In George Washington’s Leadership Fuel

On April 18, 1783, George Washington announced the end of fighting between America and Great Britain.

The freedom won in the American Revolution came at a high cost:  of the 200,000 Americans who served in the war, 25,000 died.  This staggering number represents about 1 percent of total American population at that time.

Over the course of nearly nine years of war, Washington’s leadership style had profoundly changed.  In the early days, in his attempts to copy the European Aristocracy, Washington preferred keeping a distinct separation between his “well-bred” officers and the lower-class front lines.

Yet, as he saw the incredible dedication of his soldiers, his beliefs shifted.  He witnessed his  Continental Army endure frigid winters and scorching summers.  This ragtag group of men–underfed, under-clothed, under-equipped–persevered while battling superior British forces.

Earlier in his career (the French and Indian War) Washington had been a hot-headed, more impulsive leader- and had paid the price in blood.  Now, in the Revolutionary War, Washington developed what we today might call “emotional intelligence”: adjusting his style depending on who he was with and how they perceived him. He learned to be a calm, visible and confident presence.

Not only was Washington self-aware of his style, he recognized the incredible impact his presence had on his troops.  He sought to be an inspirational role model. He’d lead his troops into battle from out front (rather than the rear), and visit the sick and wounded as they lay in camp. One famous story recounts how before one battle, Washington napped under a tree with his soldiers, much like the legendary Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt.

Washington knew that for followers, being seen and appreciated by your leader was essential to high performance.  He’d encourage officers to eat and spend time with their men. Washington also developed a decoration to be given to soldiers who displayed “extraordinary fidelity and essential service”: the Purple Heart.

It’s no accident that the recognition Washington designed was a Purple Heart.  You see, on his leadership journey, Washington had discovered the most powerful fuel to energize leadership:  Love.

At its core, leadership is a relationship.  And the strongest relationships are the ones grounded in love.To get a sense of how strong the connection between Washington and his followers were, consider the following event (eloquently described in Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography Washington: A Life):

On December 4, 1783, in his last act as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, Washington met with about thirty of the final remaining officers of the Army.

They gathered at Fraunces Tavern in New York City for a final meal.As glasses of wine were filled for a toast, Washington, visibly moved, with eyes brimming with tears, shared this toast:

With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you.  I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.  I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of  you will come and take me by the hand.

Chernow describes scene in which many hugs, kisses and tears that were shared that day. One officer wrote, “Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed…The simple thought…that we should see his face no more in this world seemed to me utterly insupportable.”

When the war ended and it was time to send the soldiers home, Washington personally signed the discharge documents for thousands of his troops. This piece of administration was not something Washington had to do; it was something he wanted to do.  It was one final way to connect and appreciate his soldiers and their service.

Without hearing the specifics of these stories, it’s easy to think of Washington and his troops as stoic, cold, two-dimensional figures trapped in history books.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Washington was a deeply caring – and deeply loving- leader.

Love gets short shrift in modern organizational life.  Maybe it’s because love means different things in different contexts.  The Ancient Greeks had it right: they had different words to distinguish eros (romantic love) from agape (selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love).

In today’s organization, saying “love” might get you written up and sent to HR.  But it’s love–the agape type of love–that inspires people to work towards a bigger purpose.  It’s agape that  enables people to transcend their limitations and achieve remarkable things.

What would your leadership look like with more of that type of love?

How have you developed “agape” relationships in your workplace?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.  

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