Drawing a crucial leadership lesson from george washington

One of the key responsibilities of a leader is to be an example to others—a role model whom others can look up to. Being a role model has everything to do with personality and character: personality is how you behave, but character is what you are. Character is what you do when no one is looking at you. All great men and women are recognized for the quality of their character.

History has it that the character of George Washington was the foundation upon which the American Revolution and Republic were built. After his death, he was called “the indispensable man.” Even to this day, it is commonly believed that the United States would not have come into existence if not for the incredible strength of character of Washington from the beginning of the revolution through to his stepping down voluntarily at the end of his second term in office.

How can you tell who a person really is inside? How can you determine his or her beliefs, goals, and values? Is it what he or she says, writes, or declares when running for public office? No, it is what a person actually does that shows the real truth about that person. Only action is truth, especially action under pressure. Peter Drucker said, “leadership is action, not position.”

For a while, I want to camp around the issue of what we truly are when we are under pressure. It is when we are under pressure, not when everything is running smoothly that what we truly are do come to the surface. Great leaders emerge during times of crisis, not times of peace. No one really knows what you and I can do until there is a crisis in the organization, family, country…that we are leading. Many people cannot think straight under pressure. People like this cannot truly provide leadership when crisis comes knocking on the door.

Many years ago, a very senior friend of mine said, “Ademola, over the years, I have keenly watched you that each time there is a crisis, you are always very calm…” It is a rare leadership capacity that you too shall need to develop, because the time that we live in requires it. If you cannot think straight under an intense pressure, then forget about leadership in this century. Remember, many leaders can take the lead when there is peace, but only a few can lead the pack when the boat is being rocked.

What made George Washington the indispensable one in his day and time? As president, he built a strong, well-financed national government that avoided war, suppressed rebellion and won acceptance among Americans of all types, and Washington is now known as the “Father of his country.” George Washington is not called the father of America for nothing. He truly was “the indispensable man.”

Why was Washington called “the indispensable man?” He was called so, simply because he was just that! Without Washington, America would not have become what she is today. It may be true that there were others whose contributions were also indispensable—James Madison and Alexander Hamilton spring to mind. But the reality is that it was Washington who saved the movement for independence at Trenton on Christmas day in 1776. It was Washington who stopped a disgruntled officer corps from taking matters into their own hands at Newburgh headquarters. Washington voluntarily turned in his commission and categorically rejected those who would make him king.

Time and time again, when called on to serve his country; he risked his reputation, his fortune and his life. He served without pay during the war. He put his life on hold to the extreme detriment of his personal finances. It was also Washington who orchestrated the conduct of the Constitutional Convention and served as its president. Washington worked diligently behind the scenes to get the Constitution ratified by the States. And it was Washington who was elected twice unanimously to serve as the country’s first president. It was he who set the precedents and established the character of the office.

Perhaps most importantly, it was Washington who voluntarily stepped down from power after his second term, creating the model for limiting the terms of executive service that was not violated until F.D.R. Most remarkable was Washington’s foresight, and his vision of what the United States would become. At the end of the war, even prior to the Constitution, Washington was able to see what few others did.

John Carey has this to say about Washington: “I was listening to story about him this morning on the radio. The story was about when he gave up his commission and sword to congress after the revolutionary war ended. He was a national hero, popular with the people and his troops and he quietly walked away from all of it. This noble and humble act was something that was simply unheard in his day. Years later, Napoleon was being interviewed while in exile and the interviewer asked why he chose to crown himself emperor instead of installing a Republic like he promised. Napoleon pondered the question for a minute or so and smiled as a replied, “we cannot all be a George Washington.”  George Washington was an amazing man and for that, every American is truly grateful. He set the necessary tone of a young nation and propelled the Americans on their journey as a people. He was given an opportunity and he did not miss it. He ended up becoming a rare model that everyone is looking up to—even till today.

Our current political leaders in Nigeria have been given an opportunity to serve as Washington was given an opportunity to serve. History is either going to be kind or cruel to them. In whatever capacity you too are leading today, it is an opportunity for you to excellently and selflessly serve those within your sphere of influence. In the days to come, history will either be kind or cruel to you. Remember, a chief responsibility of leadership is for you to become a model that others can look up to. This is what leadership is all about.


See you where great leaders are found.


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