As we honor President Washington this week, I'm reflecting on my recent experience of seeing Hamilton: An American Musical, in Chicago. There are four key lessons, as demonstrated by George Washington's character, that are especially important for nonprofit leaders to remember.
Power should be shared. Washington voluntarily resigned as the U.S. President after serving two terms, to both of which he was unanimously elected. He sought to establish a precedence that giving up power makes governance stronger. His example teaches us that succession planning and term limits are important tools for growth and sustainability.
Values and ethics matter. Before the age of sixteen, Washington studied 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. This exercise is regarded as a formative influence in the development of his character and teaches us that our own character is something that we must intentionally shape and maintain.
Flexibility is critical. During the Fight for American Independence, the British had more supplies and more soldiers, and all of those soldiers had more training than Washington's Continental Army. Keeping his army and his team in tact was critical to winning the ultimate war, and he retreated when he knew the battle was too expensive. Washington prevailed because he recognized the power of flexibility, teaching us how critical it is to be adaptive to circumstances and find creative solutions.
Equity matters. In his will, George Washington freed his slaves and adamantly made provisions for his estate to continue providing care for them after they were freed. This made him the first and only slaveholder among the founding fathers to free his slaves. At the time of his death in 1799, more than half of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population was either too old or too young to work–signifying that he had kept families together in lieu of profit. These decisions were certainly not common in their time, and yet still he could have done more. He seemed to know that slavery was incredibly unethical, but he continued to run an estate that depended on the institution. This problematic relationship teaches us the importance of pursuing equity, even if–or when–it hurts us economically and socially. True equity is difficult to achieve because it requires turning social norms on their heads, and we have a critical role in moving that needle forward.
All facts and figures are from http://www.mountvernon.org.
Some of us may have had President's Day off work, some of us may take advantage of a sale or two, and some of us go about our business without a thought to our first President.
I hope that all leaders spend time reflecting on these lessons, living them out in our own roles.
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