Politics & Policy

Leader of the Presidential Pack

Washingtonian wisdom.

Founding expert Richard Brookhiser has written histories of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family, Gouverneur Morris, among other books. This week, Rick, a senior editor at National Review, has yet another one out: George Washington on Leadership; he took questions from his colleague, National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: In Washington’s leadership manual, is it better to be feared than loved?

Richard Brookhiser: The line about fear and love is Machiavelli’s, and it is the sort of line that impresses people who, like Machiavelli, have never been leaders themselves. Your enemies should always fear you, though they should know that you will deal straight with them when appropriate. Your followers have to know that you can take things into your own hands, literally if necessary (Washington was over 6’, and broke up at least one fight between brawling soldiers). You must respect the men you lead, and they must respect you, because how else can you ask them to lay down their lives, and why else would they listen?

Lopez: Why did Washington forbid “cursing, swearing & drunkenness” in the army?

Brookhiser: Drunks can’t shoot straight. Cursing and swearing sets a tone of disorder. Washington himself swore only once in public, at Gen. Charles Lee at the Battle of Monmouth. Lee remembered it.

Lopez: How is every strategy good?

Brookhiser: During the Revolutionary War Washington’s fellow generals and his bosses in Congress saw many roads to victory. Unfortunately they were all different — and since very few idiots become major generals or congressmen, everything they said was plausible. Washington had to mix and match and see what worked. It took eight and a half years.

Lopez: How did he determine what to delegate and what to do himself?

Brookhiser: You delegate: 1) routine matters (my example is digging latrines in camp, though you also have to ride herd to make sure it gets done); 2) things you don’t know yourself — how to manage artillery, assigned to Henry Knox; how to manage a modern economy, assigned to Alexander Hamilton.

Lopez: How did he learn from other people?

Brookhiser: He watched what worked (how Indians fought beyond the frontier). He watched what didn’t work (sending brave volunteers like Nathan Hale behind enemy lines to learn information; better to rely on agents in place). He listened (Thomas Jefferson said he never heard Washington speak for more than ten minutes at a time, or to any but the main points under discussion). He asked people to brief him (for his third State of the Union, he got tips from Jefferson and James Madison, sent them to Hamilton for a draft, then passed it to Madison for a rewrite).

Lopez: His smallpox immunization campaign: Is there a back to basics message there for Washington bureaucrats?

Brookhiser: There is a message of focus. When the worst killer of the age appears in your army, as smallpox did in Boston in 1775, and you have no procedures for dealing with it, it’s time to innovate. Elizabeth Fenn, the expert on the smallpox outbreak, calls Washington’s measures the first public health program in America.

Lopez: How important was religion to Washington as leader?

Brookhiser: Washington was reticent about his beliefs. But he referred often to the power of Providence. He knew he was not the biggest thing in his world. Useful modesty.

Lopez: What were his big mistakes and how did he learn from them?

Brookhiser: During the Revolution he lost as many battles as he won. Keep going. During his presidency he trusted people who could be pains in the necks — Jefferson, Hamilton. Learn to deal with it.

Lopez: How might Washington assess the other George W.’s (Bush) leadership skills?

Brookhiser: Keep your hands on the wheel at all times, even when you have delegated.

Lopez: How might Washington advise John McCain on the communications front?

Brookhiser: “To be disgusted at the decision of questions because they are not consonant to your own ideas . . . is wrong because these things may originate in a difference of opinion.” (Letter to his stepson, 2/28/1781)

Lopez: Washington had temper issues. Is there a model for McCain there?

Brookhiser: You can’t change who you are. A good leader must know what his flaws are, notice when they show themselves, and develop the habit of reining them in.

Lopez: What would be his advice for me working with smart people like you?

Brookhiser: Please — I would not make the cut in late 18th-century America. You have to know what you don’t know, judge who knows it, and be secure enough in your own abilities to let them get the job done.

Lopez: What might be his advice to Vito Fossella?

Brookhiser: I was Father of My Country, but I didn’t do it that way.

Lopez: Would Washington have a crackberry?

Brookhiser: John Adams said that one of Washington’s greatest gifts as a leader was “the gift of silence.” He would know when to turn it off.


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