George Washington's innovative leadership: lessons executives can learn from America's first commander-in-chief

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 7 March 2008



McNeilly, M. (2008), "George Washington's innovative leadership: lessons executives can learn from America's first commander-in-chief", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 36 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

George Washington's innovative leadership: lessons executives can learn from America's first commander-in-chief

George Washington’s innovative leadership: lessons executives can learn from America’s first commander-in-chief

For executives running companies in the twenty-first century, the experiences of George Washington, America’s first president, may not at first seem to offer new insights in strategic leadership. Indeed, Washington is primarily known for being a military and political leader, not a businessman. And besides, we already know everything about him; he was America’s top general during the Revolution, saw the army through its darkest days at Valley Forge and led the country as it experimented with a new form of governance.

The reality is that while most people know something about Washington’s accomplishments, we know little about how he achieved them in tumultuous times, with limited resources, while facing the world’s most formidable adversary. His successes, developing a strategy to enable the fledgling colonies to achieve independence, using his organizational skills to create a disciplined army from farmers and tradesmen, and leveraging public relations to win the populace over to the cause are all examples from which today’s executive can learn. And Washington’s career and character, though certainly not without flaws, stands in stark contrast to the self-promotion, selfishness, and lack of integrity of too many of today’s business leaders.

Although lacking much formal education, Washington set the stage in his youth for his future achievements; always seeking to learn, forcing himself to be disciplined, learning to overcome physical discomfort, and seeking adventure. His first job was as a surveyor mapping the wilderness. As a young militia officer in the service of the British Crown, Washington exhibited courage and strategic thinking in the battles between Britain and her colonies against the French and their Indian allies. At the disastrous defeat of General Braddock’s army near Fort Duquesne, Washington’s uniform was peppered with bullet holes and he had two horses shot from under him, yet after Braddock’s mortal wounding, Washington was instrumental in ensuring the retreat was orderly and did not turn into a rout.

Lesson: build a coherent organizational culture

It was Washington’s past military experience and his standing as a Virginia leader that led the Continental Congress to unanimously appoint him commander-in-chief of the American army in 1775. Yet the force Washington took command of in Boston was an army in name only; it was more a motley mixture of half-trained militia units. There were no standard uniforms; each unit wore local colors, if they had uniforms at all. No supply system was in place, every man foraged for his own food. Sanitation was poor and the danger of disease was high. Arms and ammunition were lacking and funding was perpetually insufficient. Different units enlisted for different times and all too often enlistments would expire at times of the most danger, leaving Washington severely outnumbered by his enemy. Yet opposing Washington’s army was one of the most disciplined, well-supplied, and powerful armies on earth, the British army. And it was augmented by Hessian mercenaries and supported by the Royal Navy. In many ways Washington was like a CEO of a start-up or a merger who has to simultaneously battle tough competition while creating the processes and organization to achieve ultimate success.

Lesson: when battling a Goliath, innovate don’t emulate

While distressed by the challenge in front of him (in a letter to a close friend Washington wrote, “Could I have foreseen what I have experienced and am likely to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.”) Washington set to the task. Throughout the war Washington lobbied Congress for more funding, worked with Congress and the states to improve the enlistment process, organized the army into larger commands so it could function more efficiently, appointed the best officers to lead, improved the logistics systems and brought in experts like the Prussian officer von Steuben to train his troops. Yet Washington did not replicate the British army. Instead, he created a new type of army, composed of citizens who were motivated not by stern discipline but by the promise of independence and freedom. It would be one very different than any army the world had yet seen.

Lesson: an innovative competitive strategy requires courageous implementation

In addition to organizing the army Washington had to develop a viable strategy to win. He did so after learning from both a series of reverses in New York and some stunning victories in New Jersey. Realizing that his main army was all that kept the Revolution alive, Washington knew that it was more important to keep the army from being destroyed than to sacrifice it to defend a particular city. As long as the army was in existence, the British could not snuff out the Revolution. However, this did not mean Washington would never engage in battle. His own aggressive nature and the need to show progress to the populace would not allow that. Instead, Washington would look for occasions in which he could surprise the British and battle them on equal or better terms, which is how he won at both Trenton and Princeton.

Lesson: leadership networking creates leverage

Beyond organizing the army to win battles there was much else Washington did to promote the revolutionary cause and make it stronger. At the highest levels Washington maintained very close relationships with members of Congress and the governors and state legislators in each of the states. From his work in Congress and as supreme commander he knew many of them personally and kept up correspondence with these key leaders, updating them on the state of the army and the importance of their support. He would also meet with them whenever possible, inviting them to his camp or, if the situation allowed, meeting them at their offices. He would flatter them by asking their advice and telling them how wonderful their state’s troops were while at the same time influencing them with information and opinions of his own. This would take the form of discussing the latest war situation as a whole to specific details on how their state could contribute to the war effort and defend itself from the British.

Lesson: use stagecraft to project the image of leadership

Washington took pains to ensure he projected the right image of himself to everyone; an image that would inspire confidence and trust in his leadership. The image he wanted to project was that of a gentleman landowner and state legislator who had laid aside his personal needs and risked his own fortune and honor on the Revolution. So in his personal dress Washington made sure that he wore well-tailored uniforms that he had personally designed. He used his stature to maximum advantage, always standing straight and sitting upright on horseback, head held high, projecting an impressive but not arrogant aura. He surrounded himself with aides and a large personal bodyguard, all elegantly uniformed. This stagecraft worked because it communicated reality; Washington strove to be the great man his image personified.

Lesson: have a two-way communications strategy

Washington also had a plan to keep the populace in support of the Revolution and a critical underpinning of it was the press. To inform himself of the situation in the individual colonies and Britain he would have friends send him newspapers from those locales. Then, to influence the people in the colonies, Washington would provide the papers with stories of the army and editorials that supported the Revolution. Washington also ensured that any reports of British or Hessian plundering were passed along as well, as these served to enrage the populace. Newspaper editors, eager for content, would print these pieces and thus messages Washington wanted to communicate would get distributed widely.

Lesson: gain power by sharing power

One critical facet of Washington’s leadership was his character and integrity. Many founding fathers were concerned about putting too much power in the hands of the army commander, fearing they would merely trade one dictator, King George, for another. Washington put these fears to rest through a number of actions. He took no salary for his service, asking only that his expenses be covered. He continually consulted Congress and strove to follow their instructions. When Congress reneged on promises about pay and pensions several officers proposed that Washington abolish Congress and become military dictator. Washington strongly refused the offer and shamed the men into backing away from their rash venture. Because America’s new leaders trusted him they asked Washington to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Eventually, under the new Constitution, Washington would become the United State’s first president.

There is much that can be learned about leadership in general and business leadership specifically by understanding the life and the military and political career of Washington. By learning Washington’s lessons of leadership and following his example, executives can do a better job of running their companies and, in the process, become a better version of themselves.

Mark McNeilly A marketing director at Lenovo and an Adjunct Marketing Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author of George Washington and the Art of Business: The Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief (Oxford University Press, 2007).


Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004).

James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Little, Brown and Company, 1974).

Samuel B. Griffith II, The War for American Independence, (University of Illinois Press, 2002).

Washington Irving, George Washington – A Biography, Edited and Abridged by Charles Neider (Da Capo Press, 1994).

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