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Profiles in Leadership: George Washington

15 May 2012   Senator Jon Kyl
Take out a $1 bill. Our first president, George Washington, will be staring up at you.

Did you know he owned a whisky distillery? Have you heard about his inventions, business acumen, educational charities, wilderness adventures, or rhinoceros-teeth dentures? He was an interesting man, to be sure, as well as a tenacious yet humble leader who left an indelible stamp on our country. But, even though we look into his eyes almost daily, few of us pause to think about Washington’s place in our nation’s history. It’s a story worth remembering.

Washington first came to prominence as a 21-year-old man, when he embarked on a daring mission into the wilderness to deliver a British demand that French soldiers surrender the entire Ohio Valley. Washington volunteered for the assignment, which was doomed to failure from the start; he barely made it home alive after being ambushed and trapped in the middle of an icy river, but this would not be the last time he demonstrated bravery.

Washington was not a well-educated man like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin. However, he applied himself to practical learning and strived to never repeat a mistake.

Washington envisioned America as a future “storehouse and granary to the world.” An entrepreneurial farmer, he was one of the first American planters to switch from tobacco to wheat production, or to utilize crop rotation. He also designed new farm equipment and experimented with soil enhancements.

He leveraged his business success by investing in land and, in later years, donating substantial sums to educational institutions (even paying a friend’s college tuition). Washington also donated his stock in a canal venture to fund a national university. Unforeseen circumstances resulted in failure of that university, but his generosity and vision for privately funded education are admirable nonetheless.

Members of Congress appointed Washington commander of the revolutionary army because they trusted his character. This trust was well-founded, as he persevered through years of defeats to achieve ultimate victory. Washington’s tenacity was matched by a similarly strong work ethic; he never took a vacation during the entire eight-year war. “Time is limited,” he wrote, “every hour misspent is lost forever.”

Moreover, Washington had the humility to give up power – and more than just once.

The first time, in the afterglow of his improbable victory over the British, Washington’s officers wanted to make him king, but he gave a speech to persuade them not to go through with their plan. Shortly thereafter, he resigned his general’s commission altogether. Later, after six years of farming, he was elected president – a position many believed he would hold for life. Yet, once again, he gave up power when he declined to run for a third term. This example proved so powerful that presidents followed his self-imposed term limit for 144 years.

In their book George Washington’s Leadership Lessons: What the Father of Our Country Can Teach Us About Effective Leadership and Character, historians James C. Rees and Stephen Spignesi point out that giving up power was Washington’s most distinctive action – what separated him from other victorious revolutionary leaders like Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Fidel Castro, and Mao Zedong.

Washington’s actions reflected the humility that came from his reliance on God.

Two days before the Declaration of Independence, he wrote to his soldiers that, “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. . . . Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and the aid of the Supreme Being.” Similarly, he refused credit for his accomplishments as president, writing that he was “[d]isposed, at every suitable opportunity to acknowledge publicly our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for rescuing our Country from the brink of destruction; I cannot fail at this time to ascribe all the honor of our late successes to the same glorious Being.”

So the next time you see him staring back at you from a $1 bill, remember the charitable entrepreneur, faithful warrior, humble hero, and yes, even the whisky distillery owner. George Washington’s life is a model of humble leadership we should all strive to emulate.