As Americans get ready to mark President’s Day in honor of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it is only fitting that we take time to reflect on what we can learn from two of America’s greatest leaders. These two gentlemen, who lived and served their presidencies nearly a century apart, should be regarded today as significantly more than two deceased notables. In a time of political turmoil and uncertainty around the globe, we can glean much from their respective legacies.
George Washington (1732-1799) was 67 when he died, a relatively young man by today’s standards. The America we know now was very different when he was inaugurated in New York City in April 1789. The United States had won its revolution (with Washington leading the troops), and delegates from the 13 new states — representing some four million people — had gathered to create a constitution that outlined the country’s governance.
What made Washington’s presidency truly remarkable is that he lacked precedent for just about everything he was about to do. There was no guide book or coach to show him how to approach the nation’s business, how to handle foreign affairs, and how to shape this young, unsteady, fledgling country. Instead, we know from Washington’s speeches and correspondence that he looked deep within his character and attempted to govern with fairness, honesty and respect for his fellow-citizens, and with an ever-abiding, purposeful integrity.
In America’s early days, there were those who favored creating a monarchy, installing Washington as king. He would have none of it. When he finished his two terms, he retired to his estate-farm, declining a third term at the helm.
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was a contrast to Washington in many respects. Where Washington was born to affluence and would die as one of our wealthiest chief elected officials (net worth of some $525 million in today’s dollars), Lincoln was born into poverty. He entered the presidency with a deep conviction that slavery was wrong. Having prosecuted the Civil War, he then championed the Thirteenth Amendment, officially ending slavery in America. Like Washington, he stood for the courage of his convictions.
Lincoln dared to be different and stuck by his beliefs. He was a voracious reader, a life-long learner, and the first president to use the telegraph — the internet of the late 19th century. It was said that he never lost his sense of humor, even under the most trying of circumstances.
President’s Day is an opportunity for both congressional and corporate leadership to reflect on an era when character mattered. Two very different individuals, nurtured and formed under different realities, serving under varied, though nonetheless trying circumstances, put the country before personal ambition. They were anchored by their own, unwavering moral compasses and served the greater good. Both were steeped in humility. In Washington’s farewell address, he spoke about his “very fallible judgment,” acknowledging that he was indeed capable of missteps. And with Lincoln, we only have to look to his letter to then-General Ulysses S. Grant, in which he penned, “I now wish to make the purposeful acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.” (July 4, 1864).
Corporate leaders today are charged with taming massive change. It is all about driving performance to new highs, creating optimum value in superior products and services, and keeping cost to a minimum. It is a Darwinian world and, more often than not, we forget the fundamental basics that Washington and Lincoln exemplified. They actually cared before they asked others to do so, and they demonstrated that they valued human dignity and worth. Similarly, business leaders must acknowledge their employees’ value before they can expect them to care about the corporation’s values and goals.
The fundamental traits Washington and Lincoln shared — decency, honesty, respect and authenticity — magnified their leadership presence. Both men focused on the business of getting things done and cared not for the glory. Now, there is a novel concept!
What will President’s Day inspire in you this year?