4 Leadership Lessons from George Washington that are Just as Relevant Today

George Washington is best remembered for his legendary honesty. And while it is true that he rarely lied, much of the common knowledge about America’s first president is patently false.

For starters, he didn’t have wooden teeth. Over time, his ivory dentures developed a series of hairline fractures that were stained by food and drink, giving the appearance of wood. Even more shocking, Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree — the story was made up in an effort to boost biography sales.

After I recently finished reading Ron Chernow’s masterful biography,Washington: A Life, it was clear that we fondly reflect on the first president, and think him a great man, with no inkling as to what made him so great in the first place.

“History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure in a political sense.” — Ron Chernow

The stories we do know are often simplistic parables or trite moral lessons and in some cases, aren’t even true.

Upon digging deeper, it became clear that Washington was one of history’s greatest leaders. And his leadership skills, honed over decades of military and political experience, weren’t unique to his time. 250 years later, they’re just as valuable for any leader, entrepreneur, or creative person.

So whether you’re leading a nation to war, commanding a small business, or just trying to manage your own life, here are four key leadership mindsets from George Washington that you should adopt today.

There’s Always Room for Growth

“Light reading (by this I mean books of little importance) may amuse for the moment, but leave nothing solid behind.” — George Washington

The image conjured when you think of George Washington — that of a highbrow, upper class gentleman — is one George spent his whole life cultivating. But the truth is that Washington’s origin story is not quite what you’d assume. He grew up lower middle class, and after his father’s early death, his family lacked the money to send him to school.

Although he led America through the Revolutionary War and served two terms as president, this lack of a formal education was a constant source of insecurity. Well aware that he was neither the smartest nor most learned man in the room, he spent his entire life trying to overcome his perceived deficiency.

He seized every interval of leisure to improve himself and showed a steady capacity to acquire and retain useful knowledge” — Ron Chernow

While it would have been easier to spend his off hours relaxing with some light reading (Netflix, circa 1780), Washington knew that education wasn’t something that only happened in a classroom. Even as he climbed the ranks of American society and celebrity, he made it his goal to overcome his humble upbringing, and he dedicated his leisure time to the pursuit of self-improvement.

It’s Either a Hell Yes or a No

“Once Washington had set his sights on independence, his vision was unblinking, and his consistency proved one of his most compelling qualities.” — Ron Chernow

The hell yes or no” mantra doesn’t come from Washington (although wouldn’t it be funny if it did?). It’s a quote from entrepreneur, Derek Sivers, who doesn’t take on projects unless he’s really excited about them. If he’s only lukewarm on something, even if it sounds like a good opportunity, he’s better off saying no, because any new commitment inevitably pulls focus and time from the others he’s more excited about.

“Washington was always reluctant to sign on to any cause, because when he did, he commitment was total.” — Ron Chernow

When he signed on as general of the revolutionary army, Washington was away from home for eight full years (and his estate fell into ruin as a result). As America’s first president, he intended to resign the office during his first term, but ended up serving for eight years.

Without Washington’s enthusiastic commitment to overthrowing the British and establishing a sustainable democracy, it’s likely the United States would never have risen to prominence. Had Washington run back and forth between the Revolutionary war, his Virginia estate, and his land speculation business in the west, the young nation would have certainly crumbled.

Each new project you to take on — no matter how good your intentions — means less time and focus for the others already in progress (or more exciting ones yet to come). If it’s not a “hell yes,” then it has to be a “no.” You can’t spread yourself too thin. Your commitment must be total.

You Have Nothing To Prove

“Every man in [the Continental Congress] is a great man — an orator, a critic, a statesman, and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities.” — John Adams

While a leader should speak his or her mind, it’s not necessary to always make your voice heard. We all know “that guy” at the office, the one who feels the need to “show his intelligence” by commenting on every trivial thing, but who really just holds up the meeting and annoys everyone.

As John Adam cleverly pointed out, clamoring for the spotlight comes across as petty and annoying rather than wise or brilliant.

“Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.” — George Washington

Washington knew that unless he had something compelling to say, it was better to say nothing at all. He saved impassioned arguments and strong points of view for when they really mattered. That way, he would make fewer enemies and was apt to seem wise and convincing at just the right moment.

Don’t Create a Cabinet of Yes Men

“He had no fear that subordinates would upstage him and never wanted subservient courtiers who he could overpower. Aware of his defective education, he felt secure in having the best minds at his disposal.”

After the Revolutionary War, Washington was something of a national celebrity. Politicians were clamoring to be members of his cabinet. And while Washington could have stacked his advisory board with yes men who’d let him get away with anything, he was careful to choose a mix of politicians with differing opinions and backgrounds.

Like many modern leaders and innovators — think Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison — Washington excelled at creating strong teams. He knew he didn’t have all the answers, so he gathered a diverse group of smart men that would openly debate an issue. He just served as the group’s director and helped guide them toward the best solutions.

Although most Americans picture George Washington as a stiff, cold commander, he was incredibly popular among American citizens and among the people who served under him. He was an excellent leader whose accomplishments have been mostly lost to time, replaced with trivial stories about honesty, wooden teeth, and cherry trees.

But what made Washington great were his leadership skills — his drive for constant improvement, his commitment and consistency, his confidence, and his willingness to create a team of men that were smarter than he was.

Although he died in 1799 (just 16 days before the new millennium), the lessons his life can teach are timeless. The characteristics that made America’s first president great aren’t unique or hereditary or irrelevant. They’re simple mindsets you can adopt today to lead your troops to victory against your own seemingly insurmountable foes.

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