Believe it or not, George Washington was young once. Most people think that he didn’t tell a lie and that he chopped down a cherry tree. But, what people should know about George Washington is that before he became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he was cutting his teeth on the western frontier and fighting in another world war. In fact, there are a lot of helpful George Washington leadership lessons that we can learn from young George. Here are seven of them to consider:
Top 7 Young George Washington Leadership Lessons
Young George Washington Leadership Lesson #1: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”
Did you know that George Washington was not formally educated? John Adams went to Harvard. Jefferson went to William & Mary. Madison went to Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). But, Washington did not go to college. However, he worked hard to learn as much information as he could particularly in math and trigonometry. As a result, he was able to get his first job as a surveyor. He also taught himself about how to interact with people socially. He studied a book called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. In fact, he committed much of it to memory. Perhaps if he was alive today, Washington would read a lot of “self-help” books. There is no doubt that he was focused on improving himself. His goal was to become a gentleman farmer. He was undoubtedly ambitious. The takeaway is that a commitment to excellence takes hard work, self-discipline, focus, and continual education.
Leadership Lesson #2: Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
In a previous podcast interview, we discussed fieldcraft and how to thrive in the field. Washington began his professional life as a surveyor. Consequently, he spent a lot of time in the undeveloped backwoods of colonial America. He learned to survive in the field on little food and water. Moreover, he slept outside in the elements and endured the hardship of terrible weather. All of these experiences prepared him for his later duties as commander-in-chief. When General Washington commanded the Continental Army, he spent nearly all of his time (8.5 years) away from home. He endured harsh winters at Valley Forge and Morristown. He did not shy away from hardship and was able to lead by example. As a result, he was able to hold the American army together. There is no doubt that his early career as a surveyor in the American wilderness prepared him to be a good military leader.
Leadership Lesson #3: He was willing to take on big assignments
In 1753, Virginia Governor Dinwiddie appointed George Washington on a mission to deliver a message to the French in the Ohio Country. The British believed the French were encroaching on land that they claimed as their own. At the time, George Washington was 21 years old. His mission was to travel from Williamsburg, across the Alleghany Mountains, gain intelligence, and let the French know that they needed to leave the Ohio Country.
Washington accepted the position. Since he had been a surveyor for several years, he was capable of navigating the western frontier and also bearing the hardship of this mission. The French commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, politely met young Washington. However, after a few drinks and some pleasantries, the Frenchman made it clear that the French intended to stay. When he returned from his mission, Washington turned his notes into a detailed account that he presented to Governor Dinwiddie. The “Journal of Major George Washington” was reprinted and widely distributed. Thus, Washington began to earn worldwide notoriety for his endeavors.
The leadership takeaway is to be ready and willing to take on bold assignments. Keep a detailed record and learn from the experience. Washington had been a surveyor for five years. He was confident that he had enough experience for this major assignment as a diplomatic emissary on behalf of the British Empire.
Leadership Lesson #4: He learned his lessons and recovered from early setbacks
Washington’s mission in 1753 was a not a failure per se. He was able to gather necessary intelligence and learn about French intentions. He was not authorized to use military force. However, the next year he was sent west again. This time he was given a mandate to use military force if necessary. By now, George Washington was a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment. He did find force to be necessary at a place called the Great Meadows. On May 23, Washington and a party of Indian warriors under Tanacharison ambushed a platoon sized elements of French and Canadian forces. This led to the death of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. France would claim that Jumonville had been sent on a diplomatic mission that was similar to the one Washington had been on in 1753.
As a result of the ambush and the death of Jumonville, French forces were sent to attack Washington and avenge their losses. This culminated in a battle at Fort Necessity, which was a fort that Washington had his regiment build in the Great Meadows. Washington and his regiment were overwhelmed by the French attack on Fort Necessity. As a result, they surrendered the fort on July 4, 1754. In the process, Washington signed surrender papers that inadvertently confessed to “assassinating” Jumonville. This became an international incident. The previous year Washington had a lot of success. Now he was being ridiculed throughout Europe. But, he continued to press on and volunteered as an aide-de-camp to General Braddock in 1755. Washington remained determined to serve. He was not derailed by this setback. In fact, he learned from the experience, and emerged as a better leader because of it.
Leadership Lesson #5: He displayed courage under fire
In 1755, Washington had his opportunity to go west again. This time he went as part of Major General Edward Braddock’s expedition to use military force to drive the French out of the Ohio Country. With two regiments of British troops, Braddock established his headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia at the home of John Carlyle. Washington accepted a position as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddock. In fact, Braddock sought Washington’s expertise and experience from his time in the Ohio Country.
Unfortunately for Braddock and the British, the mission ended in failure. The French and their Indian allies ambushed the British forces near modern day Pittsburgh. During the attack, British casualties stretched over 900 killed or wounded. It was a disaster as the British were not adept in the tactics of fighting on the frontier wilderness of colonial America. Moreover, Braddock himself died on July 13, 1755.
During most of the Braddock campaign, Washington had been afflicted with dysentery. However, when the fighting started, he jumped into the fray as a bold leader. He helped restore a semblance of order amid the chaos. He was able to help organize a withdrawal of Braddock’s troops. During the fighting, he was shot through his coat four times but never hit. He also had two horses shot from under him. A legend grew around Washington that he was protected by divine Providence. Maybe so. He was definitely courageous. When it came time to step up and lead, he did so with all of the force he could muster.
Leadership Lesson #6: He sought mentors and learned from them
George Washington’s father died when he was 11. He looked up to his older half brother, Lawrence, who became influential in Washington’s adolescent life and throughout his teenage years. Lawrence played an important role in George’s life until he died in 1752. George Washington also looked up to and admired Colonel William Fairfax. He sought the mentorship of William Fairfax, who also played a major role in his teenage years. In fact, Col. Fairfax hired Washington to be a surveyor at the age of 16. Finally, Washington’s political ideas were sharpened through his friendship with men like George Mason. The big takeaway is for people to find good mentors or friends that are going to push you to develop personally and professionally.
Leadership Lesson #7: He learned diplomacy and politics
Like it or not, war is an extension of politics. Thus, a good general must also be a savvy politician. As general during the American Revolution, Washington would have to work with the Congress and build alliances with the French. At a young age, he learned how to work in political circles. He also learned diplomacy through his working with Native American tribes at the outset of the French and Indian War. While he was initially on good terms with Governor Dinwiddie, the two of them did have a falling out. Furthermore, before the battle at Fort Necessity, Washington and his regiment were abandoned by their Native American “allies.” Finally, while the Braddock Expedition ended in a disaster, Washington did learn a lot from Braddock about politics and army organization. Washington’s twenties were a formative time. He learned that politics were a major part of war.
George Washington leadership lessons exist even in his teens and twenties. However, it is often his service during the Revolutionary War and his presidency which receive the most attention. Washington had an impressive career throughout his entire life. Young George Washington leadership lessons are important for young people to learn. Our nation’s first president was a beast of a man. He did not need a college education. Instead he had unprecedented drive to learn and grow in his professional endeavors.