Leadership Lessons from George Washington
Originally published: 08.01.20 by Pete Grasso
For a while now, I’ve been listening to a podcast called American History Tellers. It is described as, “Every part of your life — the words you speak, the ideas you share — can be traced to our history, but how well do you really know the stories that made America? We’ll take you to the events, the times and the people that shaped our nation. And we’ll show you how our history affected them, their families and affects you today.”
Each “season” of the show consists of a series of two to six episodes that explores a different period in American history. So far, I’ve listened to a fascinating look at the Space Race, in-depth looks at the American Revolution, Prohibition and The Great Depression. I recently finished an account that chronicles “The Age of Jackson,” which covers the life and times of President Andrew Jackson.
American History Tellers has been around for a couple of years now, so there are many seasons for me to pick and choose when deciding what period I want to learn about next. It’s been a welcome change from the usual interview centric and business focused podcasts to which I usually listen.
If you’re like me, when you learn about something, you not only share that information with others, but also seek out additional information on the subject. While listening to the episodes on the American Revolution, I stumbled upon another podcast, [Abridged] Presidential Histories, a podcast that explores the pivotal moments that defined each president’s life and legacy and the lessons we can draw from them.
When I subscribed to [Abridged] Presidential Histories about a month ago, it was in its infancy with only two episodes: George Washington and John Adams (it’s currently up to six episodes, John Quincy Adams, and will mostly likely be on Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren by the time you read this).
Each episode is anywhere from 40-55 minutes in length and covers the life of each president before, during and after their presidencies. Already, I’ve learned quite a bit about our founding father that I’d either forgotten about or never learned when I was in school.
I think what fascinates me the most whenever I read a biography or, in this case, listen about the life of a historical figure is how much can be learned and applied to life today.
George Washington, for example, can teach us a lot about leadership and business. The hallmark of Washington’s career was that he didn’t seek power but let it come to him.
One thing that really struck me as interesting about Washington’s presidency — and let’s not forget, because he was first, he was basically making it up as he went along — was his forethought that to be a great leader, he had to surround himself with smart people.
Washington’s original cabinet consisted of only four members: Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General.
With any decision that had to be made for this new country — and there were many — Washington turned to his cabinet. Often time, these meetings turned into raucous debates where Washington sat quietly and listened to both sides of the argument before making his final decision.
He could have very easily just “gone with his gut” and do whatever he wanted to do. Instead, he trusted those around him, smart men with differing opinions and expertise, to debate the issues and convince him one way or the other. Only then, when all options were fully explored, did he act.
The most successful contractors with whom I’ve spoken to over the years all have this in common with Washington. It’s almost become cliché, but “hiring people smarter than you” is the best way to do business.
Who you surround yourself with influences your decisions as a leader and ultimately shapes your business — successful or not. Do you have the right people in the right roles at your company? Do you trust your managers to keep you informed and lead your team?
Relying on others to help in the decision-making process doesn’t make you a weak leader. It makes you an informed leader. Ultimately, however, the decision is yours to make and Washington knew this too. Right or wrong, the buck stops with you. So, make it easier on yourself and surround yourself with great people and your team will follow you as your business prospers.