George Washington, Founding CEO


America’s greatest leader was its first—George Washington. He ran two start-ups, the army and the presidency, and chaired the most important committee meeting in U.S. history, the Constitutional Convention. His agribusiness and real estate portfolio made him America’s richest man. He was as well known as any actress, rapper, or athlete. Men followed him into battle; women longed to dance with him; famous men, almost as great as he was, some of them smarter or better spoken, did what he told them to do. He was the Founding CEO.Even at a time when entertainers and freaks commandeer so much of our attention, the most important men and women in society are its leaders, whether in politics, business, or war. In politics, the buck stops at their desks; in business, they are responsible for bringing in the bucks; in war, they plan the operations and command the troops. That is why it is always important to know how a great leader of the past navigated his life, and what a leader or aspiring leader of today can learn from him.

When George Washington died, one of his mourners called him “first in war.” He got his first taste of the military at age 21, when his in-laws got him a commission in the colonial militia. His superiors found him a bit of a pain in the neck; his junior officers adored him, calling him an “excellent commander,” a “sincere friend,” and an “affable” companion. He saw two debacles, in which hundreds of his comrades were killed, and one great victory in which not a shot was fired; he was assigned to defend an undefendable frontier. When he was 26, he resigned, went home, and got married.

When Washington was 43, he got a harder assignment. Congress named him commander in chief in June 1775; he had angled for the job by showing up to the sessions of Congress in his old uniform. The American Revolution had barely begun. The troops he was assigned to command were local militias that had been renamed the Continental Army; turning them into an actual army would be one of his many tasks. During his time on the job, he fought 10 battles in five states and oversaw operations from Canada to Georgia to Indiana (then the Wild West). Between battles, he solved a range of problems from smallpox to treason. Since there was not yet any such thing as a president, secretary of defense, or secretary of state—the government consisted only of Congress—his job as commander in chief embraced some of the functions of these jobs as well: negotiating with Indians and Frenchmen, buying shoes and food. Although Congress had picked him unanimously, and backed him throughout the war, there were times when individual members schemed to replace him and when Congress as a whole simply couldn’t help him; he had to deal with that too. In December 1783, after the last skirmish had been fought and the last negotiations concluded, Washington resigned in a simple ceremony. “The spectators all wept,” wrote one of them, “and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.” Washington went home for Christmas—the first he had celebrated there in nine years.

His eulogist also called him “first in peace.” He left home in 1787 to attend a convention of delegates from across the country that had been called in Philadelphia to revise the form of government. He showed up when he was supposed to, though there were not enough fellow delegates for a quorum (“these delays,” he wrote, “. . . sour the temper of the punctual members”). On the first day of business, in late May, he was chosen to chair the meeting. The convention met every day, except Sundays and a 10-day break in late summer, for nearly four months. Washington attended every session. Fifty-four other delegates attended at various times, of whom perhaps 20 did most of the heavy arguing and heavy lifting. The result was that the United States got a brand-new constitution, including a chief executive (“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”—Article II, Section 1).

Washington got that job, too, in the spring of 1789. Many private organizations had presidents, including fire companies and cricket clubs, as Vice President John Adams remarked. But no country in the world then, and very few in history, had been ruled by such a figure; everything Washington did was, in a sense, being done for the first time. He had more free time in this job than he had enjoyed as commander in chief, and he was able to spend his summers at home. But while he was in the nation’s capital, he met regularly with his cabinet and greeted the public at weekly receptions. He also made a point of visiting every state, at a time when travel was not routine (his Air Force One was a carriage). He performed some tasks that the old national government had performed, such as waging war and negotiating peace; other tasks—suppressing a rebellion, collecting taxes, paying debts—were novelties in American history. “Few,” he wrote circumspectly, “can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act.” Chateaubriand, the French poet and diplomat, was more effusive: What did Washington leave as his legacy in “the unknown forests” of America? “Tombs? No, a world!”

In March 1797, after serving two four-year terms, Washington went home for good. Home had never been far from his thoughts, for Washington was first in business, and his corporate headquarters was Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation. Washington’s family was prosperous, if not wealthy; his father had owned 10,000 acres, most of it undeveloped, and a share in an iron mine, and had sent his two oldest sons to England to be educated. But he had died when George was 11; instead of going to England, the boy would have to go to work.