The Wisdom of Washington & Our Choice of Leaders

As a student of leadership I must offer my hopes and prayers for the coming year, and to do so I will defer to the wisdom of George Washington. It will be a critical year and those of us who give serious thought to the subject of leadership have a responsibility to speak out. I will avoid becoming overtly political, but this year will be dominated by politics. The subject of leadership and how, or why, voters choose leaders cannot be avoided.

There are voices and trends in public sentiment that today represent the greatest threat to democracy. We should be reminded that great countries and companies are never defeated by an external barbarian, but by the internal loss of principle and purpose, and the resulting disintegration from the loss of unity. This is the lesson of leadership and life cycles and is a far greater danger than any small minded terrorists, who present us with the choice to adhere to, or abandon, our principles and seek refuge in the seduction of a personality. Personalities have often gained power by agitating fears and turning one group against another. It is the seed of despotism and the destruction of democracy.

I am not frightened by one obvious bombastic personality, but by the inability of my fellow citizens to recognize the danger of ego, personality over constitutional process.

I pray that voters, and all leaders, will consider the following as they make decisions in the coming year.

Put Principles and Process above Personality

George Washington. When was his moment of greatness that justifies his recognition as “the Father of our Country?” Let me answer that. It is important, as it represents the birth of the soul of America.

Leadership Wisdom of George WashingtonOn December 4th, 1783, immediately following the departure of the British fleet from New York Harbor, George Washington met with his officers at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan to bid them farewell. The officers had not been paid by a Continental Congress that refused to raise the necessary taxes and had instead given the officers IOU’s of doubtful value. In the view of these officers, George Washington was the only legitimate source of authority in these States that could barely be called a country. They had no faith in the Congress to fulfill their duty and they wanted Washington to lead them on a march to Annapolis where the Congress was then meeting.

Everyone in the room could see tears in Washington eyes as he thanked them for their service. Knowing the sacrifices made by these officers, his band of brothers, he was pained to ask them to make one more sacrifice and return home. He told them that this new nation must be one of laws and principles, not one dominated by personalities. Washington was a man who displayed no spirit of ego or self-aggrandizement. When attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Washington was elected to preside over the proceedings although it is said that he only spoke twice, once to remind the participants not to leave papers lying around.

Washington never campaigned for any office, but was drafted to serve as our first President. He was drafted precisely because of his honorable service to the new country and because of his absence of self conceit. He much preferred to return to his home at Mount Vernon and be the gentleman farmer.

During his term as President he served as a moderate voice, listening carefully to the strong and articulate arguments of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton who had very different views of the role of the central government. It was his ability to seek compromise, not the victory of one over the other, that held the fragile country together. He feared the developing schism.

I believe that every American should be required to read Washington’s Farewell Address to Congress. It is an important and profound document both in regard to our history, but also as a reflection on the role of leadership. Washington issued a warning to his nation that two tendencies represented the greatest threats to its future. He begins his advice by reminding the citizens of the power and advantage of the unity of the Nation and to avoid regional divisions or interests to detract from that unity.

One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection

The Spirit of Party

But, he then elaborates on his concerns:

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, & warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally.

This Spirit, unfortunately, is inseperable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controuled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

This warning could not be more relevent to the politics and leadership alternatives of our own day. Let us not fail to heed his advice!

The Attachment to Other Nations

Washington’s second warning concerns the attachment to foreign interests which he feared would follow from the “Spirit of Party”.

It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favourite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels & Wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification: It leads also to concessions to the favourite Nation of priviledges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions–by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained–& by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal priviledges are withheld: And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favourite Nation) facility to betray, or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition corruption or infatuation.

Leadership Personalities and Disintegration

Those of you who are familiar with my life cycle curve may remember that in maturity, of either civilizations or corporations, principles and process are more important than personalities. In early immature cultures personalities dominate and the charasmatic leader rules. In disintegration and decline, personalities again emerge as pretend saviors who appeal to the fears of the citizens and point to demons in the form of one group or another.


All cultures, whether of countries or corporations, disintegrate in decline. All cultures progress as they create unity between divergent groups or tribes. It is the job of leaders to promote unity within their organizations or countries.

I pray, if I only had one prayer for our leaders, that they will seek that which unites and dismiss that which divides. I pray that our citizens will vote only for those who promote unity of thought and action and shun those who seek to promote themselves by arguing false dichotomies and division. This is my prayer for the coming year.