Historical references pop up in the darnedest places. Today’s New York Times (Dec. 31, 2008) profiled the current crises facing Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili and discussed the pressure on him to stand down from some of the power he had accumulated during his tenure.
“Last week, he announced a constitutional amendment that would lessen the president’s power over Parliament. Lately, he said, he is [more] attracted to the model of…George Washington, who, he said, ‘could have been a king, but instead chose to give up power, and become a democracy…It’s something I’m thinking about more and more,’ he said. ‘George Washington.’”
Powerful leaders, whether in government, private industry, or even the nonprofit world, could certainly benefit from thinking more about George Washington and his relation to power and leadership.
For those who may not remember it, George Washington, took on leadership roles from an early age. In the beginning, he wasn’t necessarily very good at it. But he learned from his experiences, from observing both strong and poor leaders, and from wide-ranging reading. He set himself on a self-directed path of improvement, with high standards and clear goals.
By the time he came before the Continental Congress to resign his commission at the end of the American Revolution, he had perfected a leadership style that won loyalty from his troops and admiration from the public. He was not without his critics, of course, who pointed out his all-too-human failings. But when George III heard that Washington had retired from his military command without seizing power in a military coup or allowing himself to be elected king, he remarked that he must be the greatest man in the world.
At the end of his second term as the elected president, not king, he walked away from power again, despite a faction that would have elected him king for life.
Washington presents many object lessons for modern leaders…not the least of which is knowing when to limit one’s own power. Dictators and dictatorial executives and managers are eventually toppled. True leaders know when it’s time to step back or even pass the torch.