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NEWS | Feb. 25, 2010

George Washington as a military leader

By Col. Scott Haines 89th Maintenance Group commander

The example set by George Washington during his military career validates an argument Gen. Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made in his article, "Military Leadership: What Is It? Can It Be Taught?" He provides four categories: professional competence, intellectual capacity, strength of character and inspirational qualities.

General Taylor stressed the importance of thorough job knowledge, good judgment in choosing key assistants and physical fitness. Upon Washington's appointment as commander of the Continental Army, he said, "I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust."

Subsequently, he surrounded himself by capable military leaders who possessed many of his same qualities of character.

Physically, Washington exhibited a commanding presence. He possessed physical energy, strength and stamina. He also placed significant emphasis on "proper social bearing, appearance and conduct."

General Taylor's second category focuses on intellectual capacity. A leader "must acquire a disciplined and orderly mind -- one accustomed to thinking hard as his body is inured to working hard." Washington quickly grasped the reality of a given situation and never repeated his mistakes. For example, after the Battle of Long Island, he escaped moving his 9,000 troops across the East River under cover of darkness and heavy fog, leaving the British astonished.

Washington recognized that his soldiers sought and needed concrete results, not vain heroic gestures. During the winter of 1778, because the Army faced starvation at Valley Forge, he avoided banqueting, socializing and speech making. He clearly understood the importance of perception and always led by example.

General Taylor stressed the importance of possessing more than an understanding of military matters. Washington understood power explicitly, both in military and political processes. Though reserved in demeanor, Washington ensured effective communication up and down the chain of command. For example, upon receiving a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he simply ordered it read aloud, letting its stirring words stand on their own.

These examples illustrate Washington's strength of character, which represents General Taylor's third leadership attribute category. Washington exhibited bravery numerous times during the American Revolution. However, the moral courage he required to raise, train, equip, provision and lead the Continental Army throughout the Revolution far exceeded the physical courage required. Washington viewed the frequent setbacks as short-term, never losing sight of his dedication to the ultimate goal of American independence.

Some historians maintain that if Washington had not been on the front line with his soldiers "the entire American Army would have been captured and the war over before it had begun." He led by example, faithfully adhering to one of his own maxims: "When my country demands sacrifice, personal ease must always be a secondary consideration."

Indeed, Washington consistently exercised command befitting General Taylor's leadership attributes. He led "not merely by virtue of (his) professional competence and intellectual gifts but also from evidence of strength of character." This leads to inspirational qualities, Taylor's fourth category. For more than seven years, Washington led a poorly equipped, poorly trained army against a well-trained, well-equipped force.
In his well-known eulogy, Henry Lee asserted that Washington was "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Remarkably, Washington willingly and voluntarily relinquished incredible power at the end of the Revolutionary War and his second term as president. He possessed a clear understanding of his role as a leader, grasping the consequence of his actions on the future of the country he helped bring into being.