failure, humiliation, overcoming adversity, alternative strategies, humility

Several years ago over the Fourth of July weekend, I watched the History channel series called “Revolution” chronicling events leading up to the Revolutionary War and thereafter…. Since George Washington was a central figure, the show explored his leadership style and the events and decisions that led him to become one of the most revered Commanders in Chief in US history.

Not knowing much about him prior to this program, I was astounded by the adversity Washington faced during his ascent; the undermining from other less qualified officers, lost battles, poor decision making, attempted mutinies (of which there were many), insubordinations and seditions, as well as brilliant successes realized through courage and perseverance. Hearing of his trials and tribulations captured my attention and I started to ponder the challenges and constants that leaders share.


Early on, George relying on his own experience and wisdom failed several times. His ragtag groups of soldiers were no match against a fierce, well-equipped and experienced adversary. He had experience from previous wars, but facing off against the British was a completely different experience. They won…. repeatedly…. The longer this continued the more his conduct and leadership capabilities came under scrutiny. With shattered self-confidence, Washington was humbled and brought to his knees. Hanging on by a thread, he needed to change things…and fast… I wondered, what was Washington’s “entry point” for change?

It is difficult to say what was “his bottom”, but George experienced a metamorphosis from “fearless leader and I know it all” to another state of mind. There resides a place inside all of us, where we run out of answers and our old way of thinking and doing is ineffective, bringing us to a painful stopping point of assessment and inquiry… What was George’s state of mind?

When holding up the “mask” it blocks new information, undermining our creativity and agility

Facing Humiliation

In the face of painful humiliation, George’s honest introspection and acceptance of his human limitations provided an entry point for change. He stopped protecting his fragile human ego…and shifted into what the Buddhists describe as Beginner’s Mind; a state of being where questions and decisions live in a state of suspension until inspiration and/or synchronicity make the imperceptible, obvious. Through contemplation and willingness to move forward both creatively and with humility he graduated to the next stage of transition where he let go of his “ego” and mask of superiority by admitting he “didn’t have all the answers. With the option of losing “face” and his leadership nearing an involuntary abdication of control, George made the difficult decision to “let go” and move forward. It is difficult to “let go” and make changes, especially when in a visible leadership role. However, when we hold up the “mask” it blocks us from receiving new information and insights often to the point of undermining growth and sound leadership practices.

In our moments of vulnerability, we are called to reach out to other sources.

What Would George Do?

When we attach our thinking and doing to specific ways it is nearly impossible to observe or experience decision making from a higher perspective; it is in our moments of vulnerability when we are brought to the breaking point that we are called to reach out to other sources for information and wisdom. What did George do?

George made a personal decision to become a “student” rather than the “master”. At that point, a gateway opened. Washington assessed his resources and reached out to others possessing special gifts and talents… this required self-trust, and a willingness to experience the discomfort I call the vulnerability of reliance that all leaders must face during trying times. Not until Washington let go were others able to step-up. This he did extremely well….

George’s next developed skill was his ability to listen to and invite differing opinions… Even if he disagreed, he reversed several decisions after considering alternative strategies and recommendations.

He also possessed persistence, tenacity and a drive to meet each challenge with a resounding positive focus. George refused to let go even in the face of extreme adversity… George’s stubborn resolve, coupled with self-reflection allowed him to reinvent his position endlessly through a myriad of unpredictable events, which ultimately brought him success in his endeavors.

Shaped, by events of the time, Washington repeatedly experienced a breaking point (or if you like entry point) However, his ability to listen to and value others by relying upon their talents and wisdom defined his leadership style and made him into an awe-inspiring Commander in Chief. His trust in his own wisdom along with others became his “source” for knowledge and creativity; translating into success on the battlefield as well as his boardroom known then as the Continental Congress… and well you know the rest of the story….

How Does This Relate To You?

As I pondered the gifts this legend brought to us on his magnificent journey, I could not help but reflect upon the life lessons inherent in George’s story. The need to release Ego, humility and asking for support; learning to trust oneself and others; intuitive listening and welcoming differing opinions as a source for creative inspiration, allowing others to express their highest talents, persistence and reinvention. These lessons can take a lifetime to learn and with most of them, I am in varying degrees of attainment. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to pose the following questions to my friends and network….
1. Who if anyone would you like to take your power back from? Who are the metaphorical “British” in your life?
2. How many battles are you winning?
3. How open are you to differing opinions as your travel your road to success?
4. If you find yourself on an unfavorable side or position what lessons can you derive from George Washington’s leadership style?
5. How can you use the idea of “Beginners Mind” in your life?
6. How can reaching out for support, change or influence your current circumstances?

Thanks Bob Franks for the great photo on Flickr.