Learning from George Washington's Leadership

A business school professor assesses the first President's leadership styleand how the current candidates stack up

The successful war hero was known among his peers to ask his top advisers for advice and suggestions on how to proceed. Then he would analyze the information and make the final decision. It sounds like a modern approach, doesn't it? Well, actually it was the way George Washington, a general and the first U.S. President, worked as a leader. And it was among the reasons he was able to defeat the British Army to win the Revolutionary War.

Washington's management style is the subject of a new book by Mark McNeilly, associate professor of marketing at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. George Washington and the Art of Business: The Leadership Principles of America's First Commander-in-Chief (Oxford University Press, 2008) examines Washington's career, including his defeats and how he learned from them to build the foundation for modern America.

McNeilly, who is the executive director for branding and marketing strategy at Lenovo (LNVGY) and has served as an infantry captain in the Army National Guard, recently discussed the book with BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Naturally, the conversation turned to the current crop of Presidential candidates and how they stack up, leadership style-wise, with the man whose picture is on the dollar bill.

McNeilly points out that his views are his alone and do not represent those of the university.

What do you think made George Washington a successful President?

His Presidency was somewhat tough. Like any President, he didn't have as much control over everything that he would have liked to have. It really came down to his integrity, character, and moral courage. He relied a lot on the fact that throughout his whole life, he always put the country first. People could trust him to stand above the politics, stand above the fray, and keep the interests of the country in mind. One of the things Washington very much did not want to see was the formation of parties, known as factions at the time. He was hoping very much that the U.S. would not go down that path. Of course, it ended up doing that.

Of the 2008 candidates, who do you think has the qualities most in common with Washington?

If you look at Washington, he has traits like self-discipline, strong character, integrity, and courage. Many of the founding fathers trusted him because of that. If you look at things like self-discipline, strong character, physical and moral courage, and integrity, you probably have to give that piece to McCain. Also, McCain has a strong record of reaching across the aisle to the Democrats to come up with some sort of practical solution and way to move forward.

Washington really had a vision for where the U.S. could go and what it could become, and he had this idea of moving beyond parties. Obama speaks to that a lot. I think it's yet to be proven whether he could implement his vision, given his voting record. He doesn't have the history that McCain does in terms of reaching across the aisle.

Washington was really innovative. People don't know that. He was the father of the American mule, for example. He looked for innovative ways to improve his farm. Obama, in terms of his campaign, has done a lot of innovative things. He's shown the ability to build a winning team. Obama has done a very good job at looking beyond the first few primaries to develop a campaign that was going to go on all the way to the convention.

One thing that was really amazing about Washington was his persistence. Clinton has been nothing but persistent. Her strategic plan for her campaign was not too good, because she thought she was going to have it wrapped up, and she positioned herself incorrectly. But she certainly wins the prize for persistence.

If I had to award it overall to one candidate, I would probably have to give it to McCain.

Are there leadership qualities that George Washington had that today's candidates completely lack? If so, what are they?

It would have to be the ability to speak straight with the American people. Again, I would say McCain would win here because he often says things that probably don't fly too well politically. The other piece probably is to get people together across parties, and again McCain would be the strongest. I think it's going to be difficult for Clinton or Obama, given that their voting records are far to the left, to reach across the aisle, whereas McCain has done that in the past.

The one way they all differ from Washington is that Washington really did not want to be President. After the Constitutional Convention, he wanted to retire to his farm. All three of these folks are very interested in pursuing the Presidency—they've put a lot of their personal time and money into it—so none of these folks are eager to retire to the farm.

What would Washington have to say about the country he helped to create if he could see it today?

I think he'd be really impressed by the success it has had in the world commercially, in terms of its prominence in foreign affairs. He would be unhappy about the formation of political parties. He would be happy that we're militarily strong. He would be a little bit worried about how much we're spending on the military, given that there was always this fear on behalf of all the founding fathers about having a big military Establishment. However, he'd be proud that for the last few hundred years, the military has always been under civilian control and has always submitted to that and never tried to overthrow that.

I think he would be happy that we eventually solved the slavery issue. I think that issue troubled him. He was fearful of the country breaking up because different parts of it had different needs. I think he would not be thrilled that it took the Civil War to solve it. But he'd be happy to see the union continued.

I think he'd be happy with the freedoms that we continue to have. If you look back at his farewell address, he had a number of points in there. He was a strict constructionist. His view was that if you wanted to change the Constitution, that's great, but you need to follow the process laid out in the Constitution. You can't read things in there that are not there. He would probably say that we moved away from the original meanings of the Constitution.

What advice would Washington give to today's Presidential candidates?

He'd want the election to be held as civilly as possible. He'd want the candidates to talk about the issues and not have it be so personalized. One thing he would say, as far as 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is that we need to fix our intelligence services. Washington himself was very focused on intelligence networks, and he ran his own spy networks. He always had a lot of good information that he used in military situations. I think he'd see our failures there as something that really needs to be fixed.

I think he'd like for America's image to be better than it is today. One thing he was very focused on was the image of America and its treatment of British prisoners. He treated them with more respect than perhaps they treated our prisoners. He would prefer we moved away from public perception issues, such as waterboarding, so we could restore our image in the world. Overall, I think he would probably be in favor of less government intervention and lower taxes.

Washington drew on the strengths and weaknesses of his team to get them to perform to their greatest potential. How did he do this?

He had to sort out who was capable and who was not and put them in positions that took advantage of their skills. Then he gave them the latitude to go off and do what they needed to do.

Henry Knox, for example, had an idea when Washington was surrounding Boston at the very early part of the war. The British were in Boston, and the Americans were outside of Boston. The only way to get the British out would be to bring in cannons and bombard them. But the Americans didn't have any cannons, so they had captured Fort Ticonderoga, which was way up north in New York. Knox said: "What if we bring those cannons from there to Boston?" Washington gave him the O.K. to do that. This was another dead-of-winter situation, where they had to take these very heavy cannons and bring them down the water and get them all the way to Boston. Knox was able to pull it off. They put the cannons out there and eventually forced the British to leave Boston.

Where are today's leaders going wrong in terms of business and politics?

I think the biggest issue is integrity and really putting the country or organization before yourself. That's where I think Washington sets himself apart. The other part of it is practicality from a political standpoint. You have to ensure your personal integrity comes above everything else. If you do that, then no matter what happens, you'll have your integrity and honor at the end of it.

Today, there are many cases—the subprime loan situation is one example—where people did stuff that they knew was wrong, but the money was so good and they thought it was going to keep on going forever that they just kept doing it.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE