George Washington And The Workplace

Washington's study at Mt. Vernon
Washington’s study at Mt. Vernon

I wrote this five years ago but it still holds true.

Who was your hero when you were a kid? Batman? Spider-man? A certain ninja turtle? My son’s is Spider-man, no question. I have to chase him all around the house as we pretend to shoot webs at each other on a daily basis. (Hey, he’s 5, its cool).

At some point though, the comic book heroes no longer cut it. When faced with a big project at work with a 5PM deadline, channeling Spider-man probably isn’t going to help much. As we grow, we need heroes that do more than just kick ass, because overtime we realize we are more often than not the ones needing an ass kicking. The enemy is within, and only someone truly heroic can be a role model for self-mastery. One man worthy of admiration in the area of self-mastery: George Washington.

Super G.W.

George Washington has always been a personal hero of mine. The combination of brave military leader and the man who could have been a king but walked away from it all was, and is, an appealing role model. The concept of George Washington as a model of leadership is certainly nothing new. The reason for this is because Washington embodied the classical virtues better than any other man of his time. Quite an accomplishment when you consider the fact that the classical works of  SenecaCicero and Plutarch were widely consumed by men of culture at the time, so to stand out in the crowd took work.

Virtue and selfless citizenship were considered the two fundamental elements of classical republicanism. Washington worked his entire life to exemplify both. So, how can we apply Washington’s example of virtue to the modern workplace? I’d like to look at three different aspects of Washington’s character by looking at his responses to key situations.

First, let’s look specifically at the classical virtue of Fortitude.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington spoke of the importance of this virtue: “[I] hope I shall always possess a sufficient degree of fortitude to bear without murmuring any stroke which may happen.” At an early age he had already proven that he had no shortage of fortitude.

It was during General Braddock’s Massacre in the French and Indian war that Washington first rose to prominence as a military leader. After several hours of intense combat, Braddock was shot and incapacitated. The British resistance of their attackers collapsed. Then Colonel Washington imposed and maintained some order and formed a rear guard, which allowed the remnants of the force to disengage. He was able to do this even though he had no official authority.

He knew what to do and had the fortitude to actually do it.

Now let’s apply this to the workplace. Just because you do not happen to have a position of authority does not mean you should fail to take charge when the opportunity presents itself. We all know of managers who have risen through the ranks through less than scrupulous means. To paraphrase an ad made famous in the 2008 elections, not every manager will be ready for that 3 AM call. But can you be? G.W. rose to the challenge and went on to be the father of a nation. Can you show up when your moment presents itself?

Washington proved himself more than ready, and when the time came he took charge of a desperate situation. The rest is of course history. Who knows what would have happened had he stayed true to a chain of command and held back even though he had the knowledge and skills to go forward. Never let rank get in the way of competency. And most importantly have the fortitude to step up when the time comes.

And it can’t hurt if you can shoot a few webs too.

Next up?

The virtue of Justice.

For good and for ill much of our lives are tied up around the concept and reality of cash. No matter how much we have, we never feel like it is enough. And more often than not, if we are going to get into trouble- with our conscience, our spouse or the law, it is going to be over the topic of money. Of course this is not a new phenomenon.

The Apostle Paul famously said that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1Timothy 6:10). The notable Roman philosopher and writer, Seneca, said something similar in his renowned text, Seneca’s Morals, which also happens to sit in Washington’s Mt Vernon study to this day.

“The great subject of human calamities is money. Take all the rest together, as death, sickness, fear, desire, pain, labor; and those which proceed from money exceed them all.”

I don’t think I need to argue too hard to convince you that money often leads to problems, but what, you may ask, can we learn by looking at the example of George Washington? Well, quite a bit actually.

First of all we need to understand that aside from a great military leader and father of a nation, Washington was first and foremost a land owner, farmer and businessman. Interstate commerce and pre-industrial manufacturing were very much a part of his work. He was not someone who was averse to earning and building wealth. However, he was also not an individual who chased money as a prime motivator.

Classical Republicanism as a Model

The ideal of classical republicanism held that disinterestedness in financial gain from public service should always be maintained. In keeping with this concept Washington refused to be compensated for his service as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. When later developments caused him to profit personally from a land bill his sense of propriety caused him to set up an educational trust with the profits.

Washington was also generous with his money, often to a fault. According to Joseph J. Ellis in his work, His Excellency, Washington regularly loaned money which he failed to see returns on, causing him to run his estate in the red for 11 consecutive years. Yet still when called to lead this fledgling nation he refused pay for public service.

Clearly Washington, like Seneca, wanted to promote the classical virtue of Justice- the proper balance between self-interest and the rights and needs of others, or selflessness. He wished to warn against the negative effects of choosing money as a motivator for public service. So, how does this inform our behavior in the modern workplace?

There are two distinct lessons to be learned. First, while we obviously all work for the purpose of gaining money to provide for ourselves and our families, we must remember not to make this our prime motivator. In order to find meaning in our jobs we must seek out that which is noble in what we do. What does our job do to assist, provide for or inform others? This must be what moves us to perform our jobs well.

Second, when we perform a work related task the first thing on our minds should not be, is this part of my job description? Or am I paid to do this? No one wants to be taken advantage of, but there are times when something simply needs to be accomplished. If you have the skill and ability, do the job selflessly. Normally these things eventually come full circle. Those above you will notice your work and reward will most likely eventually follow.

Washington knew that a dignified disinterest was a valuable attitude to cultivate. We could do worse than to follow this example.

I want to continue to look at Washington’s virtue of Justice, but through the lens of his Stoicism. A strict stoic believed that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a person of virtue would not suffer such emotions. Washington was not quite that strict an adherent to the stoic ideal. We would be better calling him a humane stoic.

Cicero’s De Officiis [On Duty] guided Washington’s stoic acceptance of his fate.

De Officiis  is divided into three books, in which Cicero explains his idea as to the best way to live, behave, and observe moral duties. He was influenced heavily by Greek philosophy, mostly Stoicism. The book expounds on what is honorable, what is expedient, and what to do when these values are in apparent conflict with each other.

While we cannot be certain that Washington read this work in its entirety, its general influence on American republicanism is unquestioned. Therefore the ideas it contained surely found their way to Washington’s own code of behavior. Cicero states that “we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being.” It is this idea that most permeates Washington’s actions.

The father of our nation had no such lofty goals when he set out to make a name for himself. After distinguishing himself as a man of honor on the battlefield he in fact wanted nothing more than to retire to his farm and live out his days as an agricultural innovator. But duty called in the form of first, the role of commander-in-chief of the army, and later first President of The United States of America.

That he did not desire this fate is well documented. He was plainly told by the influential Governor Morris that “You alone can awe the Insolence of opposing Factions & the greater Insolence of assuming Adherents. . . . You will become a Father to more than three Millions of Children.” It was not a desire for power, but the call to duty that brought Washington to the halls of power.  His sense of Justice- the ability to act on the behalf of others leads his to follow Governor Morris’ dictum.

Applying Washington’s stoic acceptance of the greater good to our work lives is vital to a virtuous life.

While we of course should not devote ourselves to our jobs to the same degree that Washington sacrificed for his country, nevertheless the model is in place for leading a life where the success of the whole should be considered on par with the success of the individual. Many of us are called to sacrifice our own personal gains or desires for the sake of the company, firm or business where we work.

While I certainly would not advocate for becoming a doormat at work, I also think the Gordon Gecko Greed is Good motto has in many ways over run our professional lives. A little consideration for what needs to be done for the good of the whole benefits not only the organization, but all the individuals that make it up.

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