As always, I don’t agree with or use everything I read, but I will still try and summarize it here. If you are new here, read why I put my semi-personal book notes online.
This book doesn’t confine itself to only Washington, it takes a look at other founding fathers. Regardless of one’s political views, I think there are some lessons here very relevant to startups and teams. Because the author gives a few examples sometimes it feels he may distill some of the teachings too much.
A big part of why I read this book was to compare it to another book Lincoln on Leadership which I felt was a better read. Start with Lincoln and then come back to Washington.
There is a roadmap to leadership that anyone can follow. Leaders are not born, they are made.
Structure and Flexibility
Establishing procedures and structures when doing something for the first time is essential. As an example: the health of troops is a priority in the army, most would assume it’s the weapons. Washington knew that without a healthy soldier, the weapons didn’t matter. He instituted “regulations for the order and discipline of the troops”, which included sanitation to prioritize a soldier’s health.
The other side of this insight, mentioned by the author, is the flexibility to know when you aren’t positive about something. Washington learned things he did not know and attempted things he couldn’t do at all. Other books might suggest you let someone else who is capable of those tasks perform them instead.
The chances of success at an unknown task are probabilistic. You might need to try a few different strategies until you find the right one. But when you do, you push through wholeheartedly. The latter is something I’ve seen in many mentors even if they didn’t have the former.
Use Available Data
Even if you can’t accurately predict what might happen, you can still prepare by recognizing what you don’t know. This paired with a de-risking technique seems valuable.
Take inputs from all trusted sources and be prepared to be overruled. Washington often arrived at decisions with his council with which he may not have agreed. But he trusted the skill of those he surrounded himself with.
The author consistently reiterates the idea of delegation when you don’t know how to solve an issue. Many many other books talk about this in different ways. Everything from surrounding yourself with a team to only focusing on problems you have proficiencies in.
Speak and Perform
His presence commanded respect, not because he was flaunting his authority, but because he could perform. He knew how to motivate, elicit emotions, speech, but always focused on the best interest of the team.
In addition to communicating well with his team, he would also do the same with his adversaries. Washington would purposefully speak softly and even was known for his “gift of silence”. I believe that meant he was also a good listener.
People will fail and you will fail your people; you’ll need to accept that failure head-on and with full responsibility. Washington was known for giving second chances which often made people feel obliged to perform better the second time. This advice resonates with a similar type of advice given by Lincoln on Leadership when it comes to giving someone a chance. I think another book had a section with a similar idea but in regards to when you hire someone, you give them a little time to adjust and perform vs passing judgment on them immediately.
This is a book I don’t personally know anyone else who has read it. It seems like there may be some historical inconsistencies, but because it’s not geared to the history crowd I’m not it’s a big deal. The book is an interesting and engaging read even if it is a little light on direct leadership and startup advice.