ImageBefore he could become father of a country, George Washington had to create a new way to lead – and his example is still worth following.

I recently read David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, the acclaimed book about the critical early months of the American revolution, including Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and surprise attack on Trenton.

For me, though, the most fascinating event in the book was a meeting a week after the attack – because it captured George Washington in the process of inventing a brilliant new style of leadership in the face of overwhelming challenges.

His new approach was completely at odds with the norms of his time, but perfectly suited to the circumstances he faced. And it has never been more relevant to business leaders than it is today.

Leadership, in the balance. The stakes could not have been higher. After Washington’s successagainst Trenton, the British had brought in reinforcements and were poised tocounterattack. With no clear line of retreat, the American army faced acrushing defeat.

 The night before the battle, the commanders on both sides convened meetings of their officers. The British general already had his plans in place, and issued orders to his subordinates accordingly. Objections were brushed aside. The leadership approach was strictly hierarchical, following the traditions of the British military.

Washington led a completely different kind of meeting, in part because he led a different kind of army. It was a diverse mix of volunteers and militias with different traditions and backgrounds, primarily loyal to their own town, region or colony.

Facing an almost impossible challenge with no clear solution, he made that diversity an asset by actively seeking the advice of his subordinates. Instead of issuing commands or dismissing different or conflicting ideas, he encouraged discussion and consideration of alternate approaches.  

Remarkably, the techniques Washington improvised in that meeting still resonate today for leaders of diverse teams facing serious challenges:

1. Creating a context.

Leaders must paint a broad and complete
 picture for their team, providing the perspective that enables them to
 understand the meaning, repercussions and influences of their 
decision-making. Washington made sure his officers recognized the importance of their
 actions. Defeat would be more than a military setback; it might turn 
public opinion against the revolution itself. 
   

2. Framing the problem.

Leaders tackling complex challenges need
 to make certain that their team fully understands the dimensions of those
 challenges. No mincing words; no sugar-coating the problem. Washington frankly outlined the untenable dilemma the army faced: a likely 
defeat if they stood their ground, and a dangerous and uncertain outcome
 if they tried to retreat through difficult terrain. 
  

3. Seeking advice.

To encourage discussion and contributions from 
the team, leaders must be clear that they are looking for solutions –
without prejudicing the process by offering their own proposal at the start.
 Everyone who can contribute should be included. Washington did not propose a course of action, according to participants.
 Instead, he frankly asked for advice, and took an active role in the open 
discussion that followed – which included contributions from local
 citizens who had also been invited. 

    


4. Reaching a consensus.

While it’s important to encourage and
 maintain an open exchange of ideas, leaders must ensure that the group
 moves toward a consensus solution. Endless discussion is almost never a solution. By the end of Washington’s meeting, a new, third option had taken shape
 with unanimous consent. The plan was to march around British forces by 
night with local residents serving as guides, and attack from the rear at
 dawn.

Following their improvised plan, the Americans won a
 decisive victory the next morning, forcing the British to retreat to New York 
and renewing colonists’ faith in the cause.

Lasting testament to leadership. My colleagues and I study
 what works and what doesn’t in organizational leadership. When it comes to
 uniting a diverse team and enabling them to solve a seemingly insoluble problem
– precisely the kind of complex
 challenges organizations face today and in the future – the approach
 Washington pioneered on that dark night in 1777 is as effective today as it was
 then. 

As you celebrate Washington’s Birthday, think about following 
his example with your diverse workforce. As a leader, you can 
make a difference – and you never know what victories it will bring!


by Signe Spencer

Signe.Spencer@haygroup.com

image: life_is_fantastic / Shutterstock.com