I have just finished reading and listening to Ron Chernow’s, Washington: A Life.
At over 900 pages, it certainly wasn’t a quick read. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal about our first president I didn’t know before, and more importantly, a great deal about what it takes to be a trustworthy leader over many years during the most crucial period of our nation’s founding.
Towards the end of his military career, after winning the Revolutionary War, Washington was faced with an uprising of his officers. They planned to hold a meeting behind his back to air their grievances with Congress, which owed them years of back pay. Washington himself had suffered significant financial losses as a result of his service to his country because of the neglect of his properties in Virginia, and the fact that the loans he had made to tenants were being paid back in basically worthless Continental currency. So, he could certainly empathize with their plight. Nonetheless, what his officers were planning was basically mutinous, going around his authority as the Commander-in-Chief. They had to be stopped, but how?
Washington decided to outlaw the meeting and hold his own meeting instead, to which all of the officers were expected to attend. During this meeting, he made it clear that their rash decision to hold their own meeting was unacceptable.
“He began by chastising the officers for improper conduct in calling an irregular meeting and disputed that Congress was indifferent to their plight, stressing the need for making dispassionate decisions.”
In other words, he made it clear to them that not only were they subordinate to him, but also that the entire military was subordinate to civilian authority, in this the Congress. He then asked them to trust him, first by reminding them of the sacrifices he had shared them throughout the war.
“As I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits . . . it can scarcely be supposed at this late stage of the war that I am indifferent to [your] interests.”
Then, in an act that he had not planned ahead of time, but which was crucial to reinforcing his trustworthiness, his shared sacrifice, and to demonstrating his humility, he:
“Pulled out his new spectacles, shocking his fellow officers, who had never seen him wearing glasses.” ‘Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind.’”
“The disarming gesture of putting on the glasses moved the officers to tears as they recalled the legendary sacrifices he had made for his country. When he left the hall moments later, the threatened mutiny had ended, and his victory was complete. The officers approved a unanimous resolution stating they “reciprocated [Washington’s] affectionate expressions with the greatest sincerity of which the human heart is capable.”
Of course, had Washington simply delivered a terrific speech with a great symbolic act, then it would not be worth remembering. Instead, he followed up his speech by writing “impassioned letters to Congress on behalf of his officers’ finances.” These efforts were rewarded because he had demonstrated his trustworthiness to Congress time and time again by defeating the British, by refusing to be paid for his military service, by providing a scrupulous accounting of the funds Congress had given him to spend, and most importantly, by retiring after winning the war rather than maintaining power which many in the country thought was his right.
“Luckily, Congress delivered on Washington’s promise and, instead of half pay for life, granted the officers payment equal to five years of full pay. The threat of a military takeover had been averted by Washington’s succinct but brilliant, well-timed oratory.”
This is a great example of how to avert a crisis by demonstrating courage, humility, and authenticity, the pillars of trustworthy leadership.
All quotations are from Washington: A Life, pp. 434-436, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.