This is my interview on “Point of View” with Dr. Nick Pitts and Kerby Anderson.
A Word About George Washington’s Reputation
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold
Of all the characteristics of the Founding Fathers, none has the far-reaching appeal that character produces. While the British were considered “the enemies,” they were far from evil dictators or savages. Thus, they opposed George Washington, and for that matter wanted him tried as a traitor and hanged, but joined the chorus of friends and foes that held Washington in highest esteem. Whether ally or opponent, Washington’s immortal character drew respect from all circles of the world
Washington’s character was evident to all but especially to the men he was charged to lead. Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s key generals, spoke of his powerful ability to lead men. Once when the rebel troops caught sight of the unexpected presence of their commander-in-chief, Greene commented, “Joy was visible on every countenance, and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.” It was not just the hope he inspired, but the confidence that the man himself brought to the men who followed his leadership. Abigail Adams, wife of Washington’s Vice-President, wrote to her husband: “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of General Washington, but I thought the half was not told to me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman soldier, look agreeable blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.” Washington’s artillery commander Henry Knox said to his wife of the General that he “fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him.
One of the most intriguing praises of the character of Washington came from the oft-forgotten founding father Gouverneur Morris. Morris, himself the author of much of the preamble of the Constitution, said that Washington had the unique ability to master the inner passions that raged within him. His premise was that Washington was a man of great passion which had the capacity to boil over into a rage. Many an officer and enlisted man were objects of that passion. However, Washington had a unique ability to tame those passions and demonstrate a level of self-control that enabled him to lead with fiery passion and yet not burn those around him. Indeed, the famed portrait artist Gilbert Stuart said of the General, “Had he been born in the forests, he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.” Washington’s ability to keep those passions under bridle enabled him to lead with ferocity, passion, focus, and yet do so with serenity and a calm needed in great leaders.
From early in his leadership of the army and the nation, praise was heaped on Washington. Early on, Washington, through two letters addressed to him, received the title “His Excellency,” a name he did not shy away from. To say he was unaware of his position, presences, and posterity would be completely false. Washington always knew he was being watched and the praise of others affirmed what he believed to be true. Washington was passionate about what the great historian Joseph Ellis calls his “posterity project.” He wanted his legacy to live on long after his death.
However, it was not only the praise of friends that speaks loudly about the General. It was the praise of his enemies that affirms the greatness of his character.
1 Peter 2:12
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
It is rare that a person is praised in life by his friends. Those words are most often reserved for the man in death. However, what is even more amazing was the praise of his enemies. The fact that enemies would praise the greatness of Washington speaks as clearly to his character as just about any other example. From opposing soldiers, to enemy commanders, to world leaders, the character of Washington was appreciated by all levels of society. General and Lord Howe, British commanders who had been fighting Washington for several months, said of Washington that though enemies, they held his “person and character in high esteem.”
When King George III heard Washington would, following the victory of the Revolution, surrender his commission and refuse to take control of the nation as a dictator, he told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Even the king recognized the extraordinary nature of this man from Virginia.
This was Washington’s last and possibly greatest accomplishment to the American cause for democracy. Simply put, he retired. He didn’t become king. It was his love of country, but most of all, his character that kept him from becoming king.
In case you missed it, here is the interview I recently did with Janine Turner on iHeart Radio about my book Founding Leadership.
Isn’t it hard when a person gets the credit for your good ideas or someone passes off a joke you have just told as their own?
I heard a funny story about a frog that wanted to go south with the birds for the winter. It was too far to hop and he couldn’t fly, so he thought about it and came up with a solution. He got a couple of his bird friends to hold each end of a stick in their beaks and then the little frog clamped down on the center of the stick with his mouth. The birds took off and the frog was hanging from the stick they were carrying in their beaks.
They flew over a couple of farmers who observed the scene. One farmer said to the other, “What a brilliant idea! Whoever came up with that idea is a genius. I bet those birds came up with that great plan!”
When the frog heard that, he just couldn’t contain himself, so he yelled, “It was meeeeeeeeeee” as he fell to the ground.
The moral of the story:
If someone else gets the credit for your good idea, just keep your mouth closed!
No one likes credit stealers, but we have to keep our egos in check and make sure we are focused on bigger ideas. It’s easy to get distracted as to who gets the credit and miss the goals that are trying to be accomplished. That is the world petty people deal in on a daily basis. Great leaders keep their eyes on the bigger vision, not the petty details. Great people are more concerned about accomplishing the task rather than taking all the credit.
It can be very frustrating when someone takes credit for your ideas. When that happens, remember the words of Ronald Reagan who said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Today is an interesting day in history. May 10 marks the anniversary of Benedict Arnold’s victory at Ft. Ticonderoga during the American Revolution. It also marks the birthday of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of our 16th President. Here we find two men who have gone down in history for less than noble causes.
While Arnold gained fame throughout the war (most notably at the Battle of Saratoga), his most famous act was his betrayal of his country as he turned over the plans to West Point to a British spy named Major John Andre. Booth, of course, also gained fame through an act of treachery as he killed Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest President in American history.
Other than ignoble endings, what do these two men have in common? To me, the similar strain in their lives was an insatiable desire to build their ego. When we live for self, it always leads to destruction. Arnold was overlooked, abused, and mistreated and allowed that hurt to attack his ego. His response was to betray his country knowing the British would ultimately prevail. Booth was so filled with ego, anger, and racism that he actually believed his terrible deed would bring him fame across the South. Both men discovered they were terribly wrong.
Following his treachery, Arnold was allowed to command British troops for a season, but ultimately died in loneliness and isolation in England finding out that both sides believed “once a traitor, always a traitor.” Booth was shocked to discover the South did not approve his actions and was hunted down like a dog. After being mortally wounded, Booth died on the porch of the Garrett farm looking at his hands and saying, “Useless, useless.”
Ego is a powerful force we all have to wrestle. We have to balance a healthy view of ourselves with an unhealthy idea that we are something greater than we really are. Our culture does not value humility, but pride brings destruction. Great leaders keep their ego in check…not giving into self-pity nor too high an estimation of who we are and what we can do.
Great leaders need people who can freely speak into their lives and keep their ego and pride in check. Arnold and Booth did not allow those around them to speak into their hearts, but instead listened only to their hurt and their pride. We all have hurt in our lives. We need to know how to carry the hurts of our past in such a way that they do not continue to hurt us and bring destruction in our lives.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called ‘Ego’.” That dog is always there. To end strong, we have to keep that dog in the right place. Arnold and Booth got bit. May we not make their mistake.
To read more about Benedict Arnold, click on “The Book” above and order a copy of my book “Founding Leadership: Business and Personal Leadership Principles From the Men Who Brought You the American Revolution.”
On January 13, I was on the Janine Turner radio program talking about my book “Founding Leadership.” Here is a link to the audio of the interview.