Three Decisions that Defined George Washington’s Leadership Legacy

Three Decisions that Defined George Washington’s Leadership Legacy

by Nick Tasler  |   9:00 AM February 17, 2014

A cynic might conclude that George Washington, the first president of the United States, owes his legacy to his towering physical stature and other superficial characteristics. The man looks like a leader, and perhaps that made him a convenient figurehead on which we  hang idealized virtues. But the cynic would be mistaken. Here are three counter-intuitive decisions Washington made that show what an exceptional leader he truly was.

1. General Washington decided not to impose a battlefield strategy on his field commanders. The general consensus among historians is that Washington was a mediocre military strategist at best.  However, a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal cast some doubt on that consensus.

The study found that in large, multifaceted enterprises, the biggest threat to speedy strategic decision making is “strategic imposition” from the mothership.  Historians still debate whether Washington favored a “Fabian strategy” of quick attacks and even quicker retreats, or a more traditional strategy of fighting major head-to-head battles.  The discrepancy comes largely from the fact that he imposed neither strategy.  His young and mostly inexperienced commanders were free to employed either one.  At a high level, Washington decided that the Colonies would always have a standing army in the field that was as well-trained as possible under the time and budget constraints, rather than a hodgepodge of untrained militia men roaming the countryside.  Beyond that general strategic direction, and some basic tactical goals, Washington let his young leaders make their own strategic decisions in the field—capitalizing on the speed and agility advantage they had over their larger and better-trained competitors.

2. Washington decided to oversee renovations on Mount Vernon during the most tenuous year of the Revolution. Imagine leading a comically outnumbered, under-resourced, and woefully unskilled force where the majority of your teenaged army marches throughout the New England snow barefoot because you can’t afford to buy them shoes in a war that—if lost—could send you to the gallows for treason.  Then in the midst of all this, staying up late at night sending letters home describing the right color of the new curtains in the living room.  Historians are still puzzled as to why throughout 1776, Washington continued micromanaging his home renovations from the front lines of the most difficult, dangerous, chaotic, and important leadership position of his life. Perhaps the only thing more puzzling is how he maintained confidence and composure in spite of knowingly facing such overwhelming odds.

Modern psychology might provide a clue to this riddle.  Psychologists at UCLA and NYU discovered that after making a benign decision such as where to go on vacation and then making a basic plan for executing that decision, people showed significantly higher self-esteem and optimism, while feeling less vulnerable to completely uncontrollable risks such as earthquakes. In other words, making even a small decision on something completely unrelated to your primary focus can shift you into a confident, empowered mindset.

One of Washington’s greatest assets during the American Revolution and his presidency afterward, was his ability to inspire the confidence and alignment needed to gather political and financial support from so many diverse stakeholder groups including the Continental Congress, the American public, the French government, and his own soldiers.  Perhaps this peculiar, yet easily controlled side project was precisely what enabled Washington to stay in the confident, decisive mindset that his leadership role demanded.

3. Washington Decided not to make himself supreme ruler of the United States. After risking his life to lead the American Revolution—often bravely putting himself directly in the line of fire—Washington shocked the entire world by voluntarily returning all his powers to the American people and their elected representatives.  It was a decision that even led his recently defeated foe, King George III, to comment that Washington was “the greatest character of his generation.” We will never know whether this decision was driven by altruism or a self-interested desire to be adored by history.  What we do know is that decision aligned perfectly with the pattern of decisions Washington established throughout his lifetime.  He was an exemplar of what Wharton professorAdam Grant

describes as “otherish”—people who are both highly giving and highly self-interested.

Regardless of how pure Washington’s motives may or may not have been, it’s easy to imagine a bright future for a world populated by leaders who treated every decision as an opportunity to reveal the high quality of their character.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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