Gordon Mercer and Marcia Mercer Global Digital Post

First Law of Leadership: “Great Leaders Deal With Negatives and Turn Them Into Positives

George Washington's first law of leadership: Follow it and you will be a leader.


Franklin, NC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 08/23/2010 -- Things did not look good for George Washington. The year was 1777 during the time of the American Revolution. The Valley Forge winter was harsh with over 2,400 of the troops stationed there dying of disease and hunger. Soldiers were mostly volunteers and often left to take care of matters back home. Armaments and weapons were lacking and food was scarce. Washington remarked that the path to their winter camp at Valley Forge was covered with the blood of troops without boots or clothing.

Members of the Continental Congress were not happy. Commander in Chief Washington had lost the Battle of Brandywine and British General Howe occupied Philadelphia, the revolutionary capital, leaving the Continental Congress to leave in panic. The British had previously taken New York City. Washington’s previous victories at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey were fading in memory. A conspiracy was formed to replace the Commander in Chief.

Thomas Fleming, in his book Washington’s Secret War, reveals that the plot was started by disgruntled revolutionary officers including Colonel Thomas Conway, General Horatio Gates, and General Charles Lee. They began calling Washington weak and wrote letters to the Continental Congress explaining why Washington was not the right person for the job. The Continental Congress responded by curbing Washington’s power and reviving an old Board of War with the hidden agenda of eventually replacing Washington. General Gates, one of Washington’s worst critics, was appointed to head the Board of War and Conway, another critic, became Inspector General. Earlier, General Gates, after his major victory at Saratoga deliberately bypassed Washington, reporting the victory to the Continental Congress and not the Commander in Chief.

Washington was out flanked politically and his troops lacked food, clothing and supplies. However, his troops were loyal to him and he was experienced politically. Also, he had astute judgment skills and courage.

The damaging letters began to leak back to Washington. He confronted the conspiring officers, putting them on the defensive. He contacted leaders of the Continental Congress and threatened to resign, if they did not stop putting obstacles in his way. Washington employed on his military staff four full time communications officers, which in 1777-78 meant letter writing. He charged them with writing many, many letters to better his relationship with the Continental Congress and with the leaders in the states. Washington and Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress became close friends. He began to work with the states to obtain more troops and with the Continental Congress for more shipments of food and supplies. His efforts were successful.

When Conway who had been part of the conspiracy, arrived at Valley Forge to inspect Washington’s troops, Washington snubbed him and refused the inspection. Washington arranged for General Freidrich Von Steuben to be appointed Inspector General. Stueben was a brilliant general and trained the troops well in drill, tactics, and military discipline. Leaving Valley Forge with enough men and with troops who were well trained and supplied, Washington got what he needed most, a victory over the British at Monmouth, New Jersey.

British General Henry Clinton and his troops retreated at Monmouth and fled in the night. Ironically, the officers who had plotted against Washington did not fare well. One was court marshaled, one investigated by the Continental Congress, others resigned, or were reassigned to lesser roles. George Washington and his troops along with the French allies would defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781 causing public support for the war to collapse in Britain. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, ending the war.

The above quote is our own as the experiences of George Washington during his time at Valley Forge are unique. Coming out of Valley Forge Washington dismantled a strong plot against his leadership, forged a national army out of state militia and defeated the strongest military in the world. Valley Forge was a pivotal point in the birth of a new nation. It was there that Washington demonstrated the courage and the will to confront and deal with the negatives and turn the negatives into positives to gain future victory.

(We enjoyed a recent visit to Valley Forge and want to thank the knowledgeable park rangers and historians, who enthusiastically shared their stories with us!)

Gordon Mercer is international president of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and a Professor at Western Carolina University. Marcia Mercer is a writer and columnist. Gordon and his wife Marcia live in Franklin, North Carolina and write a column called, "Notes on Quotes," for the Franklin Press. Views expressed are their own and do not reflect the views of other organizations.