Ask someone name five great American leaders from history and George Washington often makes the list. Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Presided over the Constitutional Convention. First President. Chopper of cherry trees. Thrower of rocks.
A leader who knew when to step up and when to step back: When King George III asked Benjamin West what Washington would do after winning independence, West reportedly said, "They say he will return to his farm."
The king was stunned; the idea that anyone would willingly give up power seemed absurd. "If he does that," George responded, "he will be the greatest man in the world."
That's the George Washington we know. Legendary. Iconic. Heroic.
The first episode (which I've seen, it's very good) takes you beyond the legend to understand the person. Insecure, yet at times arrogant. Intelligent, yet without advanced education. Measured, yet sometimes rash. Seeker of independence, yet slave owner. Self-aware, yet desperate to cover up an embarrassing mistake in the early days of the French and Indian War.
A man who desperately wanted a commission in the British Army, but ended up defeating that army in the Revolutionary War.
Washington's story shows that leaders are made, not born -- and how experience and adversity shapes the leader you become.
But that's just my opinion.
I also asked an expert, arguably the expert: Doris Kearns Goodwin, executive producer of Washington and author of critically-acclaimed and bestselling books like Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize), and The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.
If you're a DKG fan, she's speaking in NYC on February 29th -- along with people like President Clinton, Billie Jean King, Gloria Steinem, and Ta-Nehisi Coates -- at HISTORYTalks, the traveling speaker series that explores historical events through conversations with global leaders, authors and filmmakers. (I'm trying hard to rework my schedule so I can attend.)
Everyone thinks they "know" George Washington. What will surprise them most about the real George Washington?
Most people only know the George Washington we see on Mount Rushmore, on the dollar bill, and in the very few paintings we have of him.
We know the broad strokes-- he was the father of our country, presided over the Constitutional Convention; he was a military general, commander, and first president of the United States.
But as one of our Washington experts, Edward Lengel, aptly said, he was not born great. He took a journey to greatness.
And that journey was rocky from the start. As a young boy, he suffered much loss and disappointment. His formal education ended when his father died, thwarting his chances of going to school in England like his half-brothers. Forevermore, he was sensitive about his lack of advanced schooling.
John Adams went to Harvard, Thomas Jefferson went to William and Mary, but at the age of only 22, George Washington went to war.
And that experience inexorably changed him.
Describe Washington's leadership style, and whether there are elements today's leaders should adopt.
It was interesting because we started working on Washington not long after I finished my most recent book, Leadership In Turbulent Times, which explores the unique journeys of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as they navigated and grew through adversity and emerged to confront the challenges and contours of their times.
So I was able to look at President George Washington through that lens, and learn about his transformation from a young man seeking to rise as a military officer into a determined revolutionary who led a rag-tag army against the British Empire.
Today's leaders can learn a lot from my 'my guys' as I often have called Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and LBJ, and now I've added Washington to the group. We can learn from how they handled early mistakes and grew through adversity.
Washington, like Lincoln, developed the confidence to surround himself with strong-minded people. At moments of challenge he summons courage and perseverance to mobilize the troops and the public.
He becomes a great leader when his ambition for self becomes an ambition for something larger--to lead a fledgling new nation that will become a beacon of hope for the world at large and a lodestar for every president who followed.
If you ran a business and were looking for a presidential role model... which president would you choose?
This question comes a lot, and it turns out I find myself always choosing the one I am living with at the time.
From Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to FDR, and now George Washington--all of 'my guys' would make an exceptional role model for any time.
Leading a business presents different challenges than leading a country, but there's a certain family resemblance of qualities that all great leaders embody to a greater or lesser degree: resilience, humility, an ability to listen to diverse opinions, control negative impulses, replenish energy, and most importantly, an ambition for greater good.