George Washington, Founding CEO

PrintPrintEmailEmail The same in-laws who would later put him in uniform hired him to survey their property, which was as big as New Jersey. The money he saved from his surveying and from his militia service became his stake. When he was 29, his older half-brothers having died, he inherited Mount Vernon, the family’s main property, a 2,500-acre tract on the Potomac (marrying a rich widow helped him improve it). Over the next four decades, he added 60,000 more acres in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. Most of this real estate was held as an investment; he hoped to flip it at a profit to other investors or lease it to tenants. Mount Vernon, however, was a working farm that was more like a little country: in the 1790s over 300 people lived on it, more than worked for the State Department or served in Congress. Washington Inc., or WashCorp, was a complex enterprise that included farming, food processing, and speculation. Its CEO had to cope with overseas customers, changing markets, and deteriorating natural resources. Although Washington was often strapped for cash, by the end of his life he was able to leave legacies to 23 heirs and free the labor force, his slaves. He did better than many of his wealthy peers: his friend, Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, died in debt, and one fellow planter and president, Thomas Jefferson, died bankrupt.

At the climax of his life, Washington had fame and respect, power and honor, wealth and a good conscience. His long career had its share of disappointments and outright smashups, from lost battles to lost friendships, and Washington tended to focus on these shadows more than the average person for, as Jefferson put it, he was “inclined to gloomy apprehensions” (one of the subjects which made him apprehensive was Thomas Jefferson). But Jefferson also said, in his final judgment of the man, that “his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent.” How did he get to be this way? How did he learn to do all the things he did? How did he become such a leader?

No one is a born leader. George Washington had a long learning curve that began in his teens and stretched well into middle age. He learned from problems: from situations that he mastered or that mastered him. They came in every shape and degree of difficulty. On one disastrous day during the Revolution, he watched helplessly as the enemy captured 2,800 of his troops, which made him weep “with the tenderness of a child.” On a potentially more disastrous day, he had to talk his own officers down from a mutiny. “On other occasions,” wrote one of the officers who watched him do it, “he has been supported by the exertions of an army . . . but in this he stood single and alone.” As a political leader, he had to sit through six-hour-long speeches and tiny points of order. “Mr. Madison,” wrote James Madison in his notes on the Constitutional Convention, “moved to insert between ‘after’ and ‘it’ in Sect. 7 Art. I the words ‘the day on which’. . . . A number of members [became] very impatient & call[ed] for the question.” As a farmer, Washington had to oversee men and beasts. “Such a pen as I saw yesterday,” he wrote testily to one of his employees, “would, if the cattle were kept in it one week, destroy the whole of them. They would be infinitely more comfortable . . . in the open fields.” It was the last letter he wrote in his life; how many hundreds—thousands—had preceded it? He had to learn things he didn’t know, do things he didn’t do well, and learn not to attempt things he couldn’t do at all. He had to face unpleasant surprises and conundrums that squatted, toadlike, in his path for years.

He learned from people: people he worked for and with, and people who worked for him, including family and in-laws, comrades and colleagues, neighbors and strangers. He learned from a German who couldn’t speak English, a whippersnapper from the West Indies, and the planter down the road. Unlike Benjamin Franklin the cosmopolite, he never went abroad, except for a youthful trip to Barbados accompanying a half-brother who hoped the climate would be good for his health, so he had almost no opportunity to learn from foreigners in their own culture. To compensate, he met many foreigners in America—tourists, diplomats, officers (both friendly and hostile) who came here to fight in two world wars; his best male friend was a Frenchman. Other people of foreign culture lived right here: he met his first Native Americans when he was 16 and kept meeting with them into his 60s. There was no person who was the sole model for Washington’s life, but he spent decades picking up what he needed from whomever he could.

And, despite the fact that his own formal education stopped before what we would call middle school, he read: rules of etiquette, books on farming, generalship, politics, and history. Although he never read a book on leadership, early in his life he read a book on how to be a good man, by the Roman philosopher Seneca. His better-educated friends read the Renaissance political scientist, Machiavelli, who had written a book on leadership— The Prince —that is the model for many leadership books today. He learned from Seneca but was very different from Machiavelli and his modern descendants. He wanted to know how he should behave and how other men had behaved in positions of power and times of stress.

Action and reflection helped Washington in the most difficult subject of all, learning from himself: what he had, what he lacked, what he might acquire. Everyone makes mistakes; mistakes happen. It requires effort such as Washington’s to turn them into useful experience.

From the book George Washington on Leadership by Richard Brookhiser ©2008.