Thursday, February 14, 2013

Leadership Skills: George Washington

Perhaps what makes George Washington a great man is not his various accomplishments, nor his noble character, but the combination of the two. Either factor can be found isolated in numerous historical individuals; but the blend is much rarer. James Srodes, reflected on a book written by John Ferling about Washington, writes:

Washington had a fairly prosaic start in life and could have remained a modestly prosperous farmer of little note. He was the son of a second marriage; his father was a successful planter and political figure; his elder half-brother, the heir, had been a well-regarded soldier in the earlier wars of the century. Even when Washington came into his inheritance, real economic advancement depended on marriage to a wealthy widow, and he quickly burned through her fortune as well as his own.

An ordinary gentleman farmer in Virginia: an enviable lifestyle, to be sure, but hardly one which makes the individual a world-historical figure. Washington understood the geographical and economic factors which made North America an exceptional opportunity. Land was an amazing resource in the English colonies, compared to densely-populated Europe. Mapping and organizing the continent was the key to the future:

He became an adept and adventurous land surveyor and through that latched onto a military career.

Washington's insight into the value of this land got him into the French and Indian war, which started in 1754 with a series of humiliating victories for the Englishmen, among whom Washington began with the rank of Major. This North American conflict was the extension or analogue of the Seven Years War in Europe. The French and the English were opposing each other on battlefields in Europe, so their colonies fought each other in North America as well.

He ended what we call the French and Indian War in 1757 as a colonel with the formal praise of his superiors. A year later, he won an expensive election campaign to the House of Burgesses and began his formal career as a politician. For the next 18 years, he fashioned a reputation of deliberate soundness that was long on good judgment and short on the flowery oratory in which many of his colleagues reveled.

Although an excellent military leader, Washington was not the only, or best, military thinker of his time. His greatness came from his ability to lead and inspire, and from his moral character, not from a purely technical military skill.

There were more successful generals — Horatio Gates at Saratoga, Nathaniel Green in his campaign in the Carolinas — but Washington held the army together through personal bravery under fire and adroit politicking that dragged a disorganized Congress to its task of supplying war materials and that checkmated the various critics and plotters against him within his own officer corps.

There were also instances of Providence - what some might call luck - which accompanied Washington's path to greatness. But opportunities given to Washington - whether by Providence or luck - would have remained mere opportunities unless properly utilized. The decisive factor

is Washington's ability to capitalize on good luck. He had, after all, nothing to do with the French sending Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau and his army to America, or Francois-Joseph De Grasse and the French fleet from the Caribbean into the Chesapeake Bay. However, he was adroit enough to force-march the combined allied army away from its stalemate outside New York all the way to Yorktown and ultimate victory. So too with his presidency, Washington managed to harness the genius of Alexander Hamilton’s invention of a truly national economy and financial system and to hold potential rivals such as the jealous John Adams and the utopian Thomas Jefferson in check long enough to get the nation up and running. It takes a special kind of political genius to do all that.

The obstacles and outright oppositions which faced Washington were immense. Wes Vernon, meditating upon Glenn Beck's book about Washington, writes:

The long political knives were out for Washington - “not a British noose, but an American one.” The Continental Congress tried to micromanage the general's conduct of the war by commissioning a board to oversee it. When its inspector general showed up at the commander’s headquarters, Washington made swift work of him, stopping short of rudeness. The man was stunned.

In addition to the congressional roadblocks, Washington’s burden was increased by the fact that some soldiers had “nefarious intentions in mind.” There were 2,000 deserters during the Valley Forge winter alone. Add to that the 80 colonists who were British spies.

From Benedict Arnold's ultimate betrayal, to cliques of officers plotting to overthrow Washington, to postwar years in which he had to mediate conflicts between Thomas Jefferson and John Adam and Alexander Hamilton, Washington overcame these problems, and overcame them in such a way that his ethical manner was manifest.