Students & Parents | General Education

Business lessons from George Washington

DES MOINES REGISTER   |  February 16, 2015 by Harvey Mackay

As a history major, I am intrigued by the origins of our great country. George Washington is a logical place to start.

This week we celebrate his birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s as Presidents Day—the third Monday in February.

But what do we really know about this founding father who led our country through the Revolutionary War?

The New York Times wrote: By comparing textbooks used in the 1960s with those of today, researchers at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home in Virginia, have concluded that Washington now occupies just 10 percent of the space he had then.

A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni [for Mount Vernon] found that just 42 percent could name Washington as the man who was called “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Some of the business lessons that Washington espoused are still relevant today. He was the definition of a pragmatist. He was very practical and had a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach. He was always focused on reaching a goal.

Washington was not your typical politician. He believed in brevity. His second inaugural address was only 134 words.

He was incredibly smart and shrewd. As commander in chief of the American forces, Washington refused a regular salary and worked for expenses only. He came out thousands of dollars ahead. When offered the U.S. Presidency, he volunteered to work for expenses again – but this time Congress insisted he have a fixed salary.

Among his writings was this advice to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, January 15, 1783: “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few; and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation. Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of every one, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse, remembering always the estimation of the widow’s mite, that it is not everyone that asketh that deserveth charity; all, however, are worthy of the inquiry, or the deserving may suffer.”

And to General William Woodford, he wrote: “… be strict in your discipline; that is, to require nothing unreasonable of your officers and men, but see that whatever is required be punctually complied with. Reward and punish every man according to his merit, without partiality or prejudice; hear his complaints, if well founded, redress them; if otherwise, discourage them, in order to prevent frivolous ones. Discourage vice in every shape, and impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause, and what it is they are contending for.”

When he died, Washington provided in his will for the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of Martha, his wife. Washington was the only member of the Virginia dynasty to free all of his slaves.

His leadership lessons are worth noting also.

In 1787 a resolution was introduced into the Constitutional Convention to limit the size of the Continental Army to 10,000 men. The resolution seemed well on its way to passage until Washington was heard to say, “A very good idea. Let us also limit by law, the size of any invading force to 3,000 men.” The resolution was quickly defeated.

One reason the U.S. Congress has two houses is the following conversation between Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention, was not happy with the proposed bi-cameral system for the legislative branch of the new government. During a visit to Washington at his home, Jefferson argued for the French uni-cameral system, one legislative house.

After much discussion around the tea table, Washington turned sharply to Jefferson and said, “You, sir, have just demonstrated by your own hand the superior excellence of the bi-cameral system.”

“How is that?” asked Jefferson.

“You just poured your tea from your cup into its saucer to cool. In the same manner, we want the bi-cameral system to cool things. A measure originates in one house, and in heat is passed. The other house will serve as a wonderful cooler, and by the time it is debated and modified by various amendments, it is much more likely to become an equitable law. No, we can’t get along without the saucer in our system.”

Mackay’s Moral: I cannot tell a lie—pay attention to George Washington’s business smarts.


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