father of a country, George Washington had to create a new way to lead – and
his example is still worth following.
book about the critical early months of the American revolution, including
Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and surprise attack on Trenton.
For me, though, the most fascinating event in the book was a
meeting a week after the attack – because it captured George Washington in the
process of inventing a brilliant new style of
leadership in the face of overwhelming challenges.
His new approach was completely at odds with the norms of
his time, but perfectly suited to the circumstances he faced. And it has never
been more relevant to business leaders than it is today.
Leadership, in the
balance. The stakes could not have been higher. After Washington’s success
against Trenton, the British had brought in reinforcements and were poised to
counterattack. With no clear line of retreat, the American army faced a
The night before the battle, the commanders on both sides
convened meetings of their officers. The British general already had his plans
in place, and issued orders to his subordinates accordingly. Objections were
brushed aside. The leadership approach was strictly hierarchical, following the
traditions of the British military.
Washington led a completely different kind of meeting, in
part because he led a different kind of army. It was a diverse mix of
volunteers and militias with different traditions and backgrounds, primarily
loyal to their own town, region or colony.
Facing an almost impossible challenge with no clear
solution, he made that diversity an asset by actively seeking the advice of his
subordinates. Instead of issuing commands or dismissing different or
conflicting ideas, he encouraged discussion and consideration of alternate
meeting still resonate today for leaders of diverse teams facing serious
- Creating a context. Leaders must paint a broad and complete
picture for their team, providing the perspective that enables them to
understand the meaning, repercussions and influences of their
Washington made sure his officers recognized the importance of their
actions. Defeat would be more than a military setback; it might turn
public opinion against the revolution itself.
- Framing the problem. Leaders tackling complex challenges need
to make certain that their team fully understands the dimensions of those
challenges. No mincing words; no sugar-coating the problem.
Washington frankly outlined the untenable dilemma the army faced: a likely
defeat if they stood their ground, and a dangerous and uncertain outcome
if they tried to retreat through difficult terrain.
- Seeking advice. To encourage discussion and contributions from
the team, leaders must be clear that they are looking for solutions –
without prejudicing the process by offering their own proposal at the start.
Everyone who can contribute should be included.
Washington did not propose a course of action, according to participants.
Instead, he frankly asked for advice, and took an active role in the open
discussion that followed – which included contributions from local
citizens who had also been invited.
- Reaching a consensus. While it’s important to encourage and
maintain an open exchange of ideas, leaders must ensure that the group
moves toward a consensus solution. Endless discussion is almost never a solution.
By the end of Washington’s meeting, a new, third option had taken shape
with unanimous consent. The plan was to march around British forces by
night with local residents serving as guides, and attack from the rear at
Following their improvised plan, the Americans won a
decisive victory the next morning, forcing the British to retreat to New York
and renewing colonists’ faith in the cause.
Lasting testament to leadership. My colleagues and I study
what works and what doesn’t in organizational leadership. When it comes to
uniting a diverse team and enabling them to solve a seemingly insoluble problem
– precisely the kind of complex
challenges organizations face today and in the future – the approach
Washington pioneered on that dark night in 1777 is as effective today as it was
As you celebrate Washington’s Birthday, think about following
his example with your diverse workforce. As a leader, you can
make a difference – and you never know what victories it will bring!
Signe Spencer is a senior consultant and
the global practice leader for capability assessment at Hay Group, where she
has studied the connections between leadership and organizational success. She
can be reached at Signe.Spencer@haygroup.com.