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August 6, 2002

Would You Hire George Washington To Run A Company?

By Jim Leverette & Randy Neal

For the past few months, we’ve examined the inability of corporate executives to make decisions at once beneficial to their companies, employees, customers, and shareholders. Just over two of every three commands issued by executives are errant, inappropriate, selfish, costly, or otherwise ineffective.

This is not surprising, really. Everyone from executive recruiters to board of directors members to executives themselves find it difficult to determine the leadership capabilities of candidates for high level positions.

Identifying potential corporate leaders or directing a corporate division as an executive requires more skill and ability than many of us realize or even possess. This is so whether or not we admit it, for we are prone to ascribe genius to those who build a record of performance or even merely benefit from success. Internet pioneers who sold at an opportune time remain icons of innovation and leadership, whether their business plans withstood the dot-com collapse or not. Those that remained in the industry suffered the consequences—not only to their income and portfolio, but also to their reputation as pundits.

Leadership has an elusive quality that deflects our all too casual attempts to document its characteristics. George S. Patton, an astute judge of command, determined that aggressiveness, strength of character, energy, acceptance of responsibility, and steadiness of purpose were the principle characteristics of a leader. Such ephemeral qualities do not stand up against revenue numbers, stock increases, market share, and other data when evaluating leadership ability.

Yet the man toting ivory handled revolvers (or mother of pearl, depending upon who you choose to believe) emphasized qualities that allow for failure, flexibility, occasional lapses, and professional development. Generals—most of them, anyway—understand the loss of a position or a day matters only in that it helps determine the nature of the next decision. A leader possessing character, responsibility, and ability to remain focused on the overall goal will overcome temporary setbacks, however many or grievous.

History tells us that our greatest leaders struggled through moments that were none too stellar. A few achieved successful results so rarely that if events had not ordained them as figures of lasting importance they would be either scorned or forgotten men. George Washington comes to mind as an example of this: an ambitious, well-connected character who bungled things badly in his early attempts at leadership (he started a war by accident in 1754), made critical mistakes throughout the early years of the American Revolution, and rarely won a battle. Yet he remained both focused and aggressive. More important, he thought through each problem, solving immediate crises while never losing sight of the long-term goal. Victory, he came to realize, depended more upon keeping an army intact and in the field than winning battles. As long as the Continental Army existed, in the field and ready to fight, the British had to expend political, military, and financial capital to regain control of the colonies—and the longer they remained, the more likely France or Spain would step in to help defeat the British. Thus Washington fought to recruit, organize, train, and feed his soldiers as much as he sought battle. At Newburgh in 1783 he managed to quell an uprising of officers—they planned to threaten Congress—merely through suggestion and the force of his personality.

In 1776 his army and a few of his colleagues were fraying, near collapse. By 1783, they felt his leadership in their hearts. By remaining focused on the overall goal and striving for that goal every day on every level, he earned the title of indispensable man.

Another leader of uncertain repute performed so poorly as a militia officer that his men presented him with a wooden sword, a sign of shame. As a political figure he was often mocked by those he commanded and his initial pleas to the nation went unheeded. But Abraham Lincoln directed the nation deftly through its most severe crisis. Like Washington, he concentrated on a defining goal—in this case the reunification of the nation—and learned from early miscues.

It is curious that many people romanticize Robert E. Lee as the great leader of the Civil War—again our penchant for assigning brilliance to those who gain success after success. Lincoln and his eventual general, U. S. Grant, remained steadfast, nudging, cajoling, urging, firing, hiring, and driving in order to achieve a specific goal. None other than George S. Patton criticized Lee for his failure as a leader to force his followers toward a goal. “He gave suggestions instead of orders,” Patton once pointed out, “and it cost him the war.” Of course, Patton encouraged officers to lead by example (“your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti—you can’t push it, you’ve got to get out in front and pull it”) and never confused leadership with popularity. Lee was immensely popular and often won battles. But his actions as a leader often worked contrary to his avowed goal of separating from the United States. In an era when the defensive side held a definite advantage, Lee took his army on the offensive twice—the campaigns leading to Antietam and Gettysburg—and suffered each time. Indeed, at Gettysburg he issued orders to avoid a general engagement, and then trapped himself into a fight. He also generally refused to detach portions of his army to assist beleaguered Confederates west of Virginia. Thus he showed an odd willingness to lose the war, just so long as he came out with a decent record.

Maybe he was ahead of his time.

We read of executives with strong reputations. But how will they adapt to a new setting? Do they just perform the same function over and over wherever they go, like those slash and burn executives valued for driving stock values up sharply—and temporarily? Like we said, when assessing leadership, it’s never enough to measure popularity or examine results. By those measures, the resumes of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln at mid-career would end up in the “we’ll let you know if something comes up” file. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, would stand out.

Our cultural tendency to equate obvious moments of success with intellectual ability and leadership skill results from our inability to reconcile something thoroughly messy and impossible to quantify with a business arena that demands constant measurement and some degree of precision.

But after acknowledging professional accomplishments, give a nod to the murky qualities of command.

Jim Leverette is senior vice president and Randy Neal is managing director of The Broadmoor Group.