How to Lead Like George Washington

Although you may not be charged with leading a nation, employing the same leadership qualities possessed by the iconic historical U.S. leader George Washington, can be a useful leadership strategy. Considered to be one of history's great leaders, George Washington epitomizes such leadership qualities as persistence, toughness and courage. Able to meet the challenges head on, he showed how to retain one's dignity and to never lose sight of what matters. His organizational skills, charisma and breadth of knowledge helped to make him a leader people were willing to follow and gain strength from. Whether you want to be a better leader on the business, social or personal front, there are leadership skills you can definitely borrow from George Washington.


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    Be an inspiration to others and yourself. When delivering your intent, back your vision of the desired outcome or future state of affairs by painting a vivid picture and describing the desired outcome, the better future, or whatever it is that is hoped for. Do this with passion, the passion that you yourself feel for the matter at hand. If you truly believe in what you're doing and why you lead others, then your passion will shine forth.

    • Share your plans freely with those you're leading to help them see why you believe so much in your dreams and why buying into your dreams is a good idea for them too.
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    • Be actively enthusiastic so that others can absorb your enthusiasm.
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    Encourage idea exchange and relationship building. People are more likely to follow a leader who is willing to share his or her vision, ideas and plans and who asks for buy-in. Even if those you're leading ultimately expect you to make the hard decisions, having them feel they've shared their ideas and thoughts will allow them to feel a sense of ownership in what you're striving for.
    • Be collaborative, not authoritarian. One of the best ways to further your inspiration is to include and encourage others around you to join you in the charge. Washington always kept an open mind to a variety of ideas and kept in mind that it often takes a collaborative effort to achieve greatness (for example, he knew that having the French Navy on his side helped defeat the British). By accepting that other people's ideas may have merit, you will always be able to take advantage of the brilliance of others, and not become persuaded that only you have all the answers!
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    Expect a lot from those you lead. Rather than simply issuing orders or expecting others to fall in line, challenge people to rise to their best for any occasion. Seek the best they can do for the task at hand by actively noticing and remarking on their talents and good efforts. What you notice and praise, you tend to get more of.
    • Washington never believed that he was the fount of all knowledge. He relied on and trusted others to fill in his many gaps in knowledge, including Franklin, Mason, Henry, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. He wasn't intellectually dependent on others; rather, he was open minded and was willing to listen and learn from others too.
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    Face challenging or turbulent times head on. Making light of hard times or hoping they'll soon pass won't make the situation any easier. Facing the difficulties as they arise and finding strategies for coping and working through them is an important role for you as a leader. Moreover, imparting what you're doing is as important as doing it.

    • Share your vision of how you expect you/your organization/your team/your family, etc., will survive a hard time you're facing. Washington was able to rally the troops despite failing morale precisely because he had a vision that he refused to let go of and that he was willing to share with others. The way in which he imparted this vision helped the troops to see beyond the paycheck––they became part of the revolution. Think of how you can paint the positive vision for the bad times so that you can engage people to think in a more positive, upbeat way and be inspired by your vision of the revolution too.
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    • There is no point sugarcoating the bad that is occurring––everyone can see it happening with their own eyes. Never make decisions that result in rumors and uncertainty, such as whispers of lay-offs or big changes. Engage those you lead directly and tell them the truth about what is happening and why change is needed, and exactly how you're going about making the change. As soon as you know how others are impacted, inform them rather than leaving them guessing.
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    Follow through with your promises. Be a man or woman of your word. Actually follow through with your promises or be courageous enough to explain yourself in those rare instances where you don't feel able to meet a promise you've made. In a society where fast and loose business is commonplace, being a man or woman of your word will provide you with more integrity and credibility. When people know that they can rely on you, they will be happier to follow and trust you.
    • Don’t make a promise you can’t deliver. There’s a reason why George Washington was the only American President to be elected by unanimous vote. His fellow politicians knew that when Washington made a promise or a statement, he would always deliver.
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    Make decisions rooted in principles, not based on whether the decision will be a popular decision or not. Being a leader means that you have to make tough decisions often. What may be healthy, safe or right from an objective standpoint for your company, community or family, may not be the most popular decision with those you're leading. However, sticking to what you objectively discern to be the "greater good" will end up being beneficial in the long run. However, be very careful about how you reach an idea of what is "good" for those you're leading––keep an open mind, constantly update your information (revising where needed) and always listen to others (including those who hold opposing opinions), so as to avoid becoming obsessed with your own version of what is apparently "good".
    • Before making a possibly unpopular decision, make sure it will be able to stand the test of time. Author Mark McNeilly, who penned “George Washington and the Art of Business,” wrote that Washington “always put the country first. People could trust him to stand above the politics, stand above the fray, and keep the interests of the country in mind.” Check and double check your decisions to ensure that you aren’t pandering to specific individual interests or making a decision that will not be better for everyone in the long run.
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    • While listening to dissent is an important part of being a democratic leader, not all dissenters have a good point. This is not something to be afraid of––instead, recognize that some people are simply vexatious, difficult or personally invested in a particular outcome that doesn't benefit others. You still have a duty to carefully assess dissent but you also have the responsibility to dismiss dissent that is frivolous, cantankerous and trouble-making. That can be harder than it sounds!
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    Learn from your mistakes and be humble during triumph. If you are too afraid to make an error or a mistake, you're likely to remain where you are now. Risking embarrassment and failure are a part of being human, and learning and honing your skills is often built on trial and error, through getting on with the task and doing it.
    • Apply lessons from each endeavor toward the next. Scholars believe that Washington’s Battle of Yorktown victory may have been built on the learning he gained from assessing his previous defeats. Stay in the present rather than obsessing about the past––take only a few minutes to lick your wounds and then stand up and learn from your error.
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    Do more listening than talking. In today’s highly vocal 24/7 information-charged age, listening to the chatter and information may be one of the smartest strategic methods in order to effectively lead. However, be discerning about what chatter you choose to listen to––only listen when the chatter is insightful, constructive and learned. The chatter of gossip, rumor and character assassination is never helpful for anyone, let alone someone seeking to lead.
    • Be aware of your environment. Situational awareness and knowing your audience's preferences will help you size up the competition, any possible threats and all of the opportunities.
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    Be curious about new ideas, thoughts and concepts. Perhaps you may not completely agree with an idea being shared by the competition or a colleague, but instead of turning a blind eye, listen and absorb what is being said. In fact, seek to stand in another person's shoes and learn their side of the story so well that you could discuss their beliefs, preference or approach to their satisfaction, even though you don't hold the same view. This is possibly one of the most successful means for reaching compromise and understanding with others because the other side realizes that you do totally understand their point of view, and that it is actually a case that you hold a different view.
    • Be curious about why the idea is being delivered, where it’s coming from and who is delivering it. Washington’s curiosity about the uncharted Virginia territory may have given him somewhat of a tactical advantage––he had explored the area and had prior knowledge before the battles commenced.
    • Educate yourself. Whether you're college trained or life trained, you have a personal duty to never cease learning. Washington was not highly educated in the sense it is understood today––for example, he didn't go to college. But he didn't use this as an excuse to not learn or to be ignorant––he spent his whole life continually learning from his experiences, from his colleagues and through reading.
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    Give others a chance. Washington, while beloved, turned down running for a third term because he felt it was time to pass the baton and disbursement of power. While he could have enjoyed a third term and the people were rallying for it, he knew that the country would be better off with new, fresh leadership. Remember that you are human, and that like all humans, you are fallible and there will come a time when your wisdom is best imparted through other channels and you should pass the baton to a new leader in the wings. Never overstay your welcome as a leader––there may be new and different leadership challenges awaiting you, or it may be time to pass to being a teacher, mentor or guide for future leaders.


  • Try something new, even if may appear to be difficult. Washington was an innovative leader who made a difference. Try different ways to improve on processes or methods.
  • Stay grounded in your original principals and visions. While your ideas may evolve and mature, stay true to your goals or deeper principles.
  • Take criticism like a champ. While no one likes to be criticized, like defeats and mistakes, learn from criticism, and if warranted learn from it. Never take unwarranted criticism to heart––criticism from a person who lacks expertise, knowledge or experience to criticize on the matter should simply be ignored.
  • Be persistent and don’t give up. If there’s a will, there’s a way. Washington employed the “try to try again” notion, which worked well for him.


  • Avoid surrounding yourself with people who may have their own personal agenda and not the greater good. If you can't avoid working or being around many such people, keep a watchful eye on them and keep a polite but aware distance to avoid soaking up their influence.

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