Gordon Mercer and Marcia Mercer Global Digital Post

George Washington’s First Law of Leadership: Great Leaders Deal Successfully with Negatives and Turn Them into Positives

Gordon Mercer and Marcia Mercer Global Digital Post: Is it time to once again apply the first law of leadership that started us on the path to becoming a great nation?


Franklin, NC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 02/02/2011 -- As we examined George Washington’s revolutionary experience along with his later leadership experiences, we found he always dealt successfully with the negative things first in terms of his leadership approach and then succeeded in creating a positive path ahead. While we will explore his revolutionary experiences in this column, Washington was instrumental in dealing with the failing Articles of Confederation and creating a new U. S. Constitution, turning an inexperienced Continental Army into a force that defeated the British and later in dealing with state debts and other economic problems to create a thriving economy in a new United States.

What if our U. S. Congress, U. S. President and Governors used this approach today and dealt successfully with our failing K-12 educational system, huge deficits, the loss of manufacturing and technological leadership and the huge amounts of wealth leaving the United States on oil as we lack energy independence. Dealing successfully with negative things first may not be a popular style but then again we need great leaders more than ever before. Like many leadership principles our great principles develop out of experiences that overcome great obstacles. Some of today’s leaders talk about negatives but unlike Washington simply lack the ability to formulate and carry out successful plans to deal with them.

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 principle of leadership dealing successfully with negatives before a positive path develops is based on the experiences of George Washington during his time at Valley Forge and as he led his troops to victory. 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.

Our crisis today relates to an erosion of leadership in the public and private sectors. We hope George Washington’s first law of leadership will inspire leaders in all walks of life. Until we successfully deal with the negatives, positive things on U. S. Jobs, economy, debt, technology leadership, trade and education will not happen.

Gordon Mercer is international president of the Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and a professor of political science at Western Carolina University (WCU). He holds a Ph.D. degree in organizational development, founded the Public Policy Institute at WCU in 1999, and has held the position of associate dean of research and graduate studies at the university. Marcia Mercer is a writer and published columnist with the Franklin Press. Go to http://9955.hostednr.com to get to our Global Digital Post Press Room. Views expressed in this column are the views of the authors and do not reflect the views of other organizations.