George Washington’s Leadership Qualities

George Washington generally preferred a restrained style of leadership.  By this I mean he was economical with his words, careful in doling out both praise and recriminations, and mindful that his actions would resound more loudly with subordinates than his statements.  He understood the principle that, when leading men, sometimes a leader had to turn his back on them; he did not strive for back-slapping familiarity, but instead the calm and steady application of discipline and objective.

Such a style is not suitable for many commander, for it requires an enormous amount of self-control; but Washington had trained his nerves over many years to a stoic level of refined maturity.  Nevertheless, he had a great deal of repressed energy and emotion, and these could break through the surface with volcanic intensity in moments of adversity.  Several examples will illustrate his mastery of different leadership techniques.  In some situations, a gentle, subtle hand was required; at other times, the sword would come out.  It will be seen that, for all his gentility and courtesies, Washington was a stern disciplinarian who knew how to act ruthlessly when conditions demanded such a posture.

We begin with an incident that took place in 1776.  Washington appointed one Colonel Joseph Reed to act as his adjutant general.  This year was a severely challenging time for the new Continental Army; it was beset on all sides by problems with logistics, training, supply, and adequate small-unit leadership.  Only Washington’s tremendous prestige and charisma were able to hold things together; and it would not be an exaggeration to say that, absent these two factors, the rebel army would have dissolved into the American mists in short order.  Despite professing loyalty to Washington, Reed nursed secret doubts about his commander’s ability to rise to the occasion.  He believed the general was vacillating, indecisive, and unwilling to commit himself to a specific strategy.  Instead of keeping these opinions to himself, Reed decided to communicate them to one of Washington’s rivals (of which there were many), a reckless fool named General Charles Lee.

On November 22, 1776, Washington dispatched an urgent message to General Lee, asking him to remove his forces from New York and bring them to New Jersey to participate in the defense of that state.  The letter was given to Reed, with instructions that it be sent.  Reed took the opportunity to engage in a treacherous whispering campaign behind Washington’s back.  In the parcel sent to Lee, Reed inserted a letter of his own in which he expressed doubts about Washington’s competence, and denigrated his abilities as a commander.  Reed’s words speak for themselves:

I do not mean to flatter nor praise you at the expense of any other, but I confess I do think that it is entirely owing to you that this army and the liberties of America…are not totally cut off…An indecisive mind [referring to Washington] is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army…As soon as the season will admit, I think yourself and some others should go to Congress and form the plan of a new army.

Some time later in New Brunswick, Washington opened a letter that General Lee had sent to Reed, who was at that time away on other business.  It was routine practice in Washington’s headquarters for him to open such mail to his adjutant, as he believed it was related to the present military campaign.  What he found in the letter, however, shocked and angered him.  Lee had disclosed his decision to disregard Washington’s orders and follow his own intentions.  But this was not all.  He also leveled criticism at Washington is direct language, denouncing “that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage.”  He went on to say that “eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the man of the best parts if cursed with indecision.”  The tone of Lee’s letter indicated unmistakably to Washington that the two men had been speaking against him behind his back.

Washington was now faced with the dilemma of how to handle the situation.  He valued Reed as an adjutant, but could he avert his eyes to such disloyalty in a subordinate?  Washington dealt with Reed with a masterstroke of understatement.  Instead of firing or chiding him, he sent him this letter on November 30, 1776:

Dear Sir:

The enclosed was put into my hands by an express from the White Plains.  Having no idea of its being a private letter, much less suspecting the tendency of the correspondence, I opened it, as I had often done all other letters to you…upon the business of your office…This, as it is the truth, must be my excuse for seeing the contents of a letter which neither inclination or intention would have prompted me to, I thank you for the trouble and fatigue you have undergone in your journey to Burlington and sincerely wish that your labors may be crowned with the desired success. My best respects to Mrs. Reed.

This subtle yet powerful communication recalls the expertly worded missive that Libanius, a court official of the Emperor Julian, wrote to a Christian notable named Julianus upon the emperor’s death.  Washington avoids overt anger and recrimination; instead, he opts for a restrained, subdued tone.  He lets Reed know that he is aware of his treachery, but provides the offender no hint or clue as to how he will retaliate.  Reed, upon receiving this letter from Washington, must have simmered in anxiety for days.  Deeply embarrassed, he tried to resign his commission, then withdrew this request.

There was never an overt break between the two men, but they circled each other frostily, as if each was waiting for the other to raise the subject.  Reed eventually did so in March of 1777, and offered what amounted to a belated apology; Washington let him stew for a few more months before sending Reed a letter in June, suggesting that they put the matter behind them.  Washington never disclosed this “letter incident” to General Lee, but was able to rid himself of him in another way.  Lee was court-martialed after the Battle of Monmouth in June 1777 for a variety of offenses, including disobedience and disrespecting his commander-in-chief.

In other contexts, Washington was capable of meting out the harshest discipline.  He was acutely aware that disloyalty and indiscipline, if allowed to go unchecked, could lead to overt mutiny.  Washington was prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep order in his ranks; anything less than this rigid standard would have led to their collective ruin.  On January 1, 1781, thirteen hundred American soldiers in Morristown, Pennsylvania, angered by months of privation, poor pay, and lack of support, revolted and murdered several junior officers.  Washington knew that the situation needed to be dealt with vigorously and without delay; rebellion, like bravery, can be highly contagious.  If wind of this revolt reached the British, they would undoubtedly exploit it to the full by encouraging other units to desert or defect.

One of Washington’s officers, Anthony Wayne, went through the motions of negotiating with the insurgents, and offered them a settlement that addressed their grievances.  But mutiny was never acceptable under any circumstances, and Wayne received Washington’s blessing for the stern justice that would follow.  Twelve of the insurgent ringleaders were apprehended, stood before a firing squad, and summarily shot.  When one man did not die instantly from the bullets, Wayne ordered a member of the firing squad to deliver the coup-de-grace with his bayonet.  When the soldier balked, Wayne drew his own pistol and threatened to shoot the man unless he thrust his bayonet into the dying man on the ground.  Wayne then made sure that his entire unit walked by to observe the corpses.

Washington personally dealt with mutineers a short time later in New Jersey.  About two hundred men, fortified by rum and recklessness, revolted and headed for Trenton.  Washington summoned additional soldiers under General Robert Howe to help him deal with the problem.  Howe did so; he then rounded up a few instigators and had them shot.  On another occasion, Washington saw to it that Major Major André, head of the British Secret Service in America during the Revolutionary War, was tried as a spy, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Washington was especially incensed by the assistance he had given to Benedict Arnold in the latter’s descent into treachery.  The sentence, death by hanging, was carried out on October 2, 1780.  Washington himself did not attend, but he had his men witness the execution, so that there would be no doubt regarding how treason was punished.

The ability to know what remedy to use for each affliction is a talent that can only be acquired from experience.  Some leaders never acquire it.  Equally true is it, that what distinguishes the good commander from the great one is the ability to do what is necessary in times of adversity.  What may appear harsh or cruel to the uninitiated observer may only be, in reality, the clarity and necessity of command.  The true leader walks a lonely road, and will encounter doubt and disapproval everywhere.  Washington always chose what was right over what was expedient.  It was his will alone that kept the Continental Army alive and in the field during the dark days of the Revolutionary War.  On an instinctive level, he understood Lucan’s maxim,

Sidera terra ut distant et flamma mari, sic utile recto.  [VIII.487]

And this means, “As far as the stars are from the earth, and fire from water, so is the right from the advantageous.”


Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: