Leadership isn’t just being in charge of people—it’s the ability to motivate men and women to persevere in the face of dreadful opposition, insurmountable odds, and flagging spirits.
George Washington is held up as one of the main reasons for America’s independence, though he had many flaws and made more than one costly mistake. In 1776 David McCullough outlines the trait that brought Washington, thus the Continental Army, success:
He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gift orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.
Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance—for “perseverance and spirit,” for “patience and perseverance,” for “unremitting courage and perseverance.” Soon after the victories of Trenton and Princeton, he had written: “A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove.”
Yet Washington only took the responsibility of leading his country in the battle against America because he believed in the vision: that all men are created equal, and that the oppressive tyranny that the United Colonies were being subjected to was unjust. He had nothing to offer his soldiers but the vision of freedom, and when all else failed, this is indeed how he was able to motivate them to persevere.
On December 30, 1776, when the contracts of many of the soldiers in his army were expiring, winter had begun full-force, and all seemed lost, Washington made the appeal to his troops to continue fighting and not abandon the cause of freedom.
One of the soldiers would remember his regiment being called into formation and His Excellency, astride a big horse, addressing them “in the most affectionate manner.” The great majority of the men were New Englanders who had served longer than any and who had no illusions about what was being asked of them. Those willing to stay were asked to step forward. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Minutes passed. Then Washington “wheeled his horse about” and spoke again.
“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.”
Again the drums sounded and this time the men began stepping forward. “God Almighty, wrote Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”
Being a good leader isn’t only about upholding the cause—it’s also about casting the vision to persevere when all seems lost.