Feb 10, 2013

What I Learned from George Washington About Startups and Life

Don't ask me why, but I had never read a Washington Biography.  Lincoln I had always found fascinating and devoured, but as for the first US President ... I don't know ... somehow he seemed a bit abstract and aloof and not interesting as a human being.  I was ill informed.  I found a free Kindle book on George Washington by William Roscoe Thayer on Amazon.  I was struck by parallels to the startup life, and to life in general, and wanted to share them.

from Amazon - not your average George

1. American Independence as a Hack - Persistence: Never Give Up

A lot of the epiphanies for me are a direct result of my ignorance of details the American Revolution.  For example, I knew that July 4, 1776 is celebrated as the Independence Day.  I had no idea how drawn out the actual conflict was, from Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.  And even then the war wasn't formally ended.

What is most surprising for me was how much of a hack the whole operation was during those long years.  Thayer expresses thus: "it must appear that the American Revolution was almost the most hare-brained enterprise in history."  What he means is how often the British had the chance to crush American rebellion, how long-drawn out the process was, how ill-provisioned the American opposition was.

So, then why didn't the British win?  There are many reasons.  And other founding fathers played their roles and contributed to the success.  But the primary key is Washington.  Washington was the persistent voice through all ups and downs.  Washington "never wavered" and essentially acted as the constant light while others disagreed.  Washington became a human symbol of the foundation on which the whole thing hinged and "the people knew this."  It's amazing.

Lesson: If you are fighting for a cause you believe in, don't give up.  Stay constant and true.
Corollary: Find something you believe in with all your heart.  It may not pay off soon, but over time, people will recognize your work.  Nothing great is easy, so don't give up.

(See related post where I talk about temptation to give up in my own venture - never give in.)

2. Leadership Matters

So, Washington mattered.  And he mattered supremely.  Without that one man, there might not be America as we know it today.  One man.  Stop and think about it and it's kind of amazing.  But, funny thing is, I had this sensation a few weeks ago when I watched a documentary on Vince Lombardi.  Again, I'm kind of weird for not knowing much about this American icon.  Learning about Lombardi's impact on the team - with same players - was a revelation.  Just as reading about Washington's singular contribution to victory was a revelation.

Before: In 1958, the Greenbay Packers finished with a 1-10-1 record.  On Feb 1959, Lombardi took over.
After: Well, for football fans and Packers in particular, you know the rest is history.  One man.

I attended a school, the mission of which was "to improve society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs."  Come election time, I am tempted to think (as the masses often do) 'my one vote doesn't matter ... at least not much.'  And that's probably true.  But, at certain critical moments, and in leadership role, one vote, one act, one person, can and do make a profound difference.

This is Jefferson, the scholar ... beautiful Charlottesville

Lesson: The individual leader matters.  The individual matters supremely.
Corollary: In a way, every individual matters for that role.  So, hire wisely.

Hire the Washington or Lombardi for that role, so that they turn the tide of events against a bigger foe.  Help that leader turn a losing season into a championship sweep.  Neither Washington nor Lombardi became what they are overnight.  Behind their contributions stands clues to character and achievements.  It's not always the one who spoke the loudest (Adams) or had the most gleaming celebrity (Franklin) in their past that becomes that dogged, persistent, and constant figure necessary to win a long struggle.


Anonymous said...

Interesting perspectives here on Washington, David. They made me think of a recent biography by James Thomas Flexner entitled "Washington: The Indispensable Man." As you honestly point out, Washington's not typically thought of as "indispensable" - more like colorless and stuffy. But without him the early Republic was clearly doomed. Also, truth be told, Washington was not a particularly good field general in most of his battles. But gad, he was virtually superhuman in his persistence during the War and his ability to motivate his soldiers. Let's also not forget that his republican values stayed with him even after he reached the Presidency. I recall that some historians have said that the greatest day of the early Republic was when Washington left the Presidency after two terms. He could have been President/King for life, but, no, he firmly held to his belief in democratic government.
Grayson Kirtland

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comments and observations. Whether in entrepreneurship or in other aspects of life, we are certainly reminded of the value of long-term persistence in the character of Washington.