In recognition of President’s Day this week and my exploration of the personal characteristics, skills, and abilities that make leaders successful, I thought it is apropos to focus on a president who exuded integrity. Integrity is a bedrock characteristic of the greatest leaders, who build both trust AND respect from the people they lead. George Washington, our nation’s first president, demonstrated integrity both on the battlefield and in the nation’s highest office. In his book Washington’s Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer writes that Washington possessed “integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others.”
Washington’s integrity was tested in the early years of our new nation, especially during the Revolutionary War. By 1777-78, he was commanding troops and had suffered losses in all major battles against the British. Retreating 18 miles north to Valley Forge, he helped his soldiers build log cabins where they stayed the winter in freezing cold conditions. With the lack of food, cold, illness, and a demoralized army, he lost at least a dozen men each day to death or desertion.
Washington urged Congress to send the troops food, but Congress advised him to steal food from nearby farmers. But that didn’t pass Washington’s integrity test. Even though local farmers were selling their corn and beef to the British, who paid in gold, Washington rejected Congress’s advice and promised to hang any soldier caught stealing food. Washington won the trust of his troops who were impressed with his integrity. The next summer, his men who had trained hard over the winter, won a victory that set the stage for overcoming the British and gaining independence for America.
During Washington’s presidency, his integrity was tested often. For instance, he recognized that America’s integrity, both at home and abroad, depended on honoring its war debt. Some Americans wanted to default on payments to those at home and in France who had invested in the war for independence. Some advised repaying part, but not all of the debt. Washington clearly saw this as an issue of integrity and persuaded Congress to pass a tariff to pay all America’s debts.
Washington wasn’t always popular with everyone, but he was respected and trusted. And that trust went a long way to ensure Washington’s success as our first president even when he did make mistakes. As Dr. Burton Folsum, Senior Fellow in Economic Education, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, observes, “Politicians of weak character are often second-guessed and challenged on their motives. Washington’s strong character helped Americans forgive him when he made errors in judgment.”
In Washington’s own words, he expressed the value of always acting with the deepest integrity:
“Without virtue, and without integrity, the finest talents and the most brilliant accomplishments can never gain the respect, and conciliate the esteem, of the truly valuable part of mankind.” – George Washington