In world history, the U.S. is a relatively young country but over the years of business travel, I’ve noticed anything “old” or historic in our nation’s history is essentially on the east coast and I’ve tried to take advantage of being in the area to visit some of our country’s landmarks.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to make my first trip to Pennsylvania for a leadership conference. Near the entrance of the conference center, I noticed a sign for Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Intrigued, I decided to stop in on a free afternoon.
I discovered this was the sight of a battle between 300 soldiers under the leadership of a 22-year old lieutenant colonel named George Washington and 1,000 far more experienced French troops. As my intrigue grew, I picked up a book Blooding at Great Meadows: Young George Washington and the Battle that Shaped the Man (Alan Axelrod). After all, with a title like that, I had to find out what happened to make that claim.
My CliffsNotes version is that Washington was pretty much a punk who picked the wrong fight a few days before the battle, breaking established rules of combat along the way and essentially sparking the French and Indian War. His retreat to Fort Necessity and the series of strategic mistakes he made along the way resulted in an embarrassing surrender and the loss of a third of his men. Yet, Axelrod recounts how in the midst of this fight, Washington forged the instruments that would enable all that he achieved in the years that followed.
We look at great leaders like George Washington and tell great stories of cherry trees, crossing the Potomac, and the resistance to those that would name him king following the Revolution. Yet, too often, it seems we can just assume that great leaders just show up as such and that all they’ve ever attempted worked. In reality, it just doesn’t work that way.
The best leaders I’ve known have struggled and failed and made mistakes and won and then lost and then won again. They don’t miss their mistakes as an opportunities to learn and grow. They don’t assume they are infallible and beyond instruction. They allow themselves to be shaped by their experience and the people around them.
Few will ever become a leader of George Washington’s stature and accomplishment. But all of us can follow his example – to get over ourselves and all that we think we bring to the table, to learn from our mistakes and to press forward to apply our leadership potential in service to others.
For more stories and leadership lessons, check out our eBook, 4 Critical Skills for Leaders, written by our Soderquist facilitators and coaches.