The blog of New York Times bestselling author MARCUS BROTHERTON ADVENTURERS, POETS, WARRIORS, YOU
  • The Washington Post Logo
  • The New York Times Logo
  • The Wall Street Journal Logo
  • BBC World News Logo
  • Patheos Logo PBS Logo
  • Manliness logo

What George Washington Teaches us about Great Leadership

Nov 19, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton

georgeWashington-242x300Inspiring presidents series

He really just wanted to be a farmer.

George Washington never set out to become a hero, and that usually makes the best kind of leader. He certainly didn’t aim to lead a revolution or become Father of His Country. Yet the life of this would-be farmer can inspire today’s men to learn vital lessons about practical leadership.

He was born February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and spent his childhood at Ferry Farm, the family plantation. Sorry, but the popular tale can’t be verified—that he chopped down a cherry tree and confessed to his father, “I cannot tell a lie.”

His father died when George was 11, and he helped his mother manage the farm. He studied under private tutors until about age 15, then went into surveying, planning to earn enough money surveying the Virginia wilderness to buy land of his own.

But destiny would take him further than he ever dreamed.

Consider three actions George Washington took over the course of a lifetime that provide a great model of leadership for us today.

1.    He moved beyond his comfort zone

At age 20, George became commander of the Virginia militia. With no previous military experience, he saw action in the French and Indian War. There’s no record that he complained about this unplanned course change. In fact he said,

Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.

He volunteered to deliver an ultimatum to French forces that they must abandon the Ohio Territory. The journey was filled with adventure, danger, and vital experience for the young man.

In 1755 he went with British Major General Edward Braddock to drive the French out once and for all. But French and Indian troops killed Braddock and most of his officers. Young Washington rescued the survivors and led them to safety. For the first time the word hero was associated with the name George Washington.

Not in war only, but in love of the land, Washington pushed beyond comfort. His dream of owning land had come true when his brother bequeathed him the Mount Vernon estate. Back from the war, settled on the farm and married to his beloved Martha, George risked planting wheat. Virginia farms almost exclusively grew tobacco. He started crop rotation and diversified into livestock, a gristmill, and a commercial fishery. He invented a 16-sided barn, and expanded from 2,000 to 8,000 acres.

George would have been happy living out his life on the farm.

But duty called.

It was never simply about what he wanted.

In a life characterized by serving others, George was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses. In 1774 he went to Philadelphia as a representative to the Continental Congress. In 1775 the War for Independence broke out between the colonies and Great Britain.

Washington was named Commander-in-Chief of the troubled Continental Army (1775-1783). When he arrived in Massachusetts to take charge of the ragtag colonial forces, devastating battles had already been fought at Lexington and Concord and the British occupied Boston. The Americans were outnumbered 10 to one. They had little money, almost no arms, zero training and scant supplies.

Although it meant tough duty for George Washington, a hero-leader was sorely needed.

2.    He ventured into uncharted space

Washington brought the skills learned in wilderness exploration and farm experimentation to the fight of his life. Surely he never sought to head the forces of the American Revolution, but here was the job, handed to him in his lap.

It was simply never about giving up.

Consistent with exploration skills, Washington grasped his circumstances and pushed onward.

It was an uphill battle, with defeat after defeat for the Americans. In the midst of bloodshed, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

The iconic picture of the American Revolution is that of Washington leading his troops across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, and winning the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey.

There shows that spirit of pushing on—no matter how cold it is, how impossible the dream, how many defeats are behind—George Washington pushed onward to try again.

3.    He stepped aside for the greater good

Shortly after the gruelling war was won in 1783, Washington resigned his commission and give up power when it was within his grasp to be almost anything people wanted to make him.

Historians note that George Washington could have become the KING OF AMERICA if he wanted. Many wanted to bestow upon him that title since most nations then were ruled by monarchs.

But Washington said no to that title, and instead sided with those who wanted the fledgling nation to be governed by elected officials.

He returned to Mount Vernon to become a gentleman farmer. But in 1787 he was elected to the convention that crafted the U.S. Constitution, and then as America’s first president. Many envisioned a crown for inauguration day, but Washington refused as did the Constitution framers.

How vital to future generations was Washington’s rejection of egotism!

It was never simply about personal achievement.

Throughout his two presidential terms, Washington continued to explore the unknown, chart new territory, and plant new crops in an exercise in democracy for the untried nation.

During his time as the nation’s leader, the first Congress met, the Supreme Court, Cabinet and U.S. Mint were set up, the capital site was established, the Bill of Rights emerged, and more.

In 1796, Washington again stepped aside for the greater good, believing limited tenure best for the country.

In a line that could be his life theme, Washington said,

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.

Whenever he came to a crossroads, Washington chose the path of serving others. It works today in our culture too.


Question: Is there something you need to step aside from, uncharted territory to explore, or a place outside your comfort zone you need to move into?

  • The Washington Post Logo
  • The New York Times Logo
  • The Wall Street Journal Logo
  • BBC World News Logo
  • Patheos Logo PBS Logo
  • Manliness logo


the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.