What does leadership look like? Is it posture, or position, or title? Well, those things can give you the role of leader, or the look of a leader, but none of those are leadership. If you have to tell people you are a leader, well … you’re probably not.

Interestingly enough, our country’s first great leader understood that. In fact, George Washington didn’t feel up to role he was asked to fill; he was reluctant to take on the title of Commander of the Continental Army. And maybe with good reason. As David McCullough writes in his book, 1776, when Washington took over command of the Continental Army, his only prior experience was in backwoods warfare – very different from what he would now be doing. When he took his new command, Washington had never led an army in battle, never before commanded anything larger than a regiment, and never directed a siege.

In his formal acceptance of the role, he told Congress: “I this day declare with utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I (am) honored with.” He wrote to his wife Martha that “far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it…. It has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service” (David McCullough, 1776, page 49).

Washington’s first major engagement was the siege of Boston. Four times Washington called for an attack on Boston; four times his generals wisely said no (1776, page 87).

The Battle of Brooklyn was almost disastrous. Though Washington was a man of details, he let the Jamaica Pass stand unguarded. Only through a decisive retreat, aided by the cover of bad weather and fog, was Washington able to lead his army back until it could fight another day (1776, pages 193-94).

Later, Washington would mistakenly open a letter from one of his associates to another, where one of his generals questioned Washington’s indecision. Later, Washington would tell one of them, “I was hurt not because I thought my judgment wronged by the expressions contained in (the letter), but because the same sentiments were not communicated immediately to myself” (1776, pages 254-55).

What do we learn about leadership from those meaningful snippets of Washington’s life? Well, I’m sure some come immediately to your mind. Here are some that come to mine:

  1. None of us is ever really ready to assume the role of leadership. The arrogant leader is no leader. The humble leader is at least one step closer to understanding what leadership really is.
  2. Even on our best days, we are dependent on the wise counsel of others. True leaders never go it alone.
  3. Leaders understand the moment. They may not feel completely adequate to the task ahead, but they see the opportunity, and they have the courage and the faith to step into it.
  4. Which means, of course, that a good leader never stops listening and learning. True leadership is first good “listener-ship.”
  5. Which also means that a truly good leader learns from her mistakes. Good leaders aren’t the ones who don’t fail; they are the ones who know how to learn from those failures.
  6. Sometimes you need a little help you couldn’t have planned on – weather, an unexpected ally, or simply the grace of God. Of course, we always need the grace of God – but sometimes that grace shows up in surprising ways, like a foggy day.
  7. Good leaders don’t hold grudges. They deal with difficult issues and difficult people (sometimes decisively), but a good leader can learn even from his opponents.

Of course, George Washington would go on to learn, and grow, and become a strong General and our country’s first president. But much of that was because he knew how much he didn’t know – and he kept learning, and growing, and leading. And who knows where our country would be if he hadn’t?


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