George Washington on Leadership

With great power comes great responsibility.  In the unsettled atmosphere of the American Revolution between the victory at Yorktown in 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, a movement arose from officers in the Continental Army to proclaim George Washington as King George I of America.

As incredible as it might sound today after 200 years of U.S. democracy, it was a very real possibility and opportunity for Washington.  As the military leader of the fledgling republic, he had the ability and the backing of the colonists who had put their faith and future in his hands.

And yet, Washington quickly dispelled the idea. Upon learning of the proposal, Washington sincerely and admonishingly responded to the officer who had written the original proposal saying that, “…if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or anyone else, a sentiment of the like Nature. “

For Washington, leadership was not about personal gain or ambition, but instead, service to a higher purpose and a greater good.  And to confirm his intentions eight years later, when the people wanted him to run for a third term—Washington  again voluntarily gave up his power when he refused to be nominated.

Why did George Washington do what he did? What was in the man’s mind? What can we learn from it during a time when egotistical self-serving leadership seems all to common? Those are the questions that Richard Archer explores in his post, The Spirit of Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Triumph of the Self.

Archer points to a couple of great resources for all of us to consider and reflect upon:

  • In His Excellency, his heralded biography of Washington, Joseph J. Ellis underscores “the truly exceptional character” of Washington’s act. “Oliver Cromwell had not surrendered power after the English Revolution. Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro did not step aside to leave their respective revolutionary settlements to others in subsequent centuries. … Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power.” Ellis thus reminds us that Washington, in relinquishing power — not just once, but twice — was bucking an imperialist pattern that stretched back to the days of the Roman and English republics, and which, sadly, continues to this day.
  • Joseph Campbell might have called this pattern “ego imperialism,” “trying to impose your idea on the universe.” “That’s what’s got to go,” Campbell insisted in The Hero’s Journey. “Your ego is [only] your embodiment and your self is your potentiality and that’s what you listen to when you listen for the voice of inspiration and the voice of ‘What am I here for? What can I possibly make of myself?'” The great task of the hero, Campbell tells us, is “not to eliminate ego, it’s to turn ego and the judgment system of the moment into the servant of the self, not the dictator, but the vehicle for it to realize itself. It’s a very nice balance, a very delicate one.”
  • Unfortunately, too many of us allow our egos unlimited rule. The tragic result, as Jung’s colleague Alfred Adler once warned us, is a life within “a self-centered world, a world in which one will never find true courage, self-confidence, communal sense, or understanding of common values.”
  • In The American Soul, Jacob Needleman urges us to read Washington’s words as “referring to the need for both the nation and the individual self to turn within for strength, not to the egoistic impulses of one or another self-serving part of human nature, but to the inner self that represents the fountainhead of inner unity.”

In his words and actions, Washington’s beliefs were clear.  As Archer concludes, “… his words and actions in stepping down as commander of the army and as Commander in Chief show us the importance of taming our venal, egoistic ambitions, passions and prejudices in the service of a greater good.”

We’ve all seen the limitations and results of self-serving behavior.  On this U.S. observance of President’s Day, let’s consider what’s possible with leadership focused on serving others as exemplified by America’s first President.  For ideas and inspiration,  check out Archer’s complete post at

9 thoughts on “George Washington on Leadership

  1. Very touching. Washington resonates with a rare character. Leadership is about servanthood; it’s epitomising the ‘tower and basin’ attitude. Lesson Gadaffi and similar cronies would learn in their graves. The man in Syria must read this!

  2. Our so called leaders today could certainly learn from the true leadership of George Washington. As Machiavelli stated in writing of The Prince: “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs at least it will savour of it.”

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  4. Not all “successful” leaders are good human beings. But the world suffers greatly from those that are not. Servant leaders leave a legacy – they help to make the world a better place

  5. By bowing out honourably, George Washington demonstrated a rare leadership quality which current and potential leaders must aspire to emulate. There is a time to ascend the rungs of power and a time to descend. Any deviation from this norm could generate ill feelings among the people, the consequences of which cannot be predicted.

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