Decision Making and Bias: The George Washington Story Part 2

Facing their biases may probably be one of the hardest thing that a decision-maker or leader will ever have to do.  Facing our bias requires requires accepting a situation and the people involved “as-is”, without being distracted by what we expect want them to be.  The leader who believes that they have no bias is a hazardous decision-maker.

While the guy on our dollar bill looks pretty egalitarian, Washington had to deal with his own significant biases in order to be successful as a leader.  Some of the biases he faced included Stereotypes, Style, and Sunk Costs.


When it came to stereotypes or prejudice, it seemed everyone had something to say about the soldiers from New England, including Washington himself. Of the New Englanders or “Yankees” Washington would say that they were “exceeding dirty and nasty” with an “unaccountable kind of stupidity…”.  In addition to being hard to manage, they were known to avoid bathing and washing their clothes because they felt that this was “women’s work”.  Seriously, what could be worse than an army of stinky misogynists?!  And yet it was from among these New Englanders that he chose his two most trustworthy generals, Nathanael Green and Henry Knox. The ability to push through his own bias saved his country and his life.


By nature, Washington was a perfectionist.  As such he was actually better suited to serve in the British army, where professional soldiers and trained officers dutifully carried out well-orchestrated battle plans. It’s said that during the chaos of war, he would send instructions home regarding the details of his renovations, including specific placement of curtains, etc. Nowadays we might have called him meticulous or even “anal-retentive” (thank you Freud for those images…).  With such a small rebel force, his choices in battle had to be the exact opposite of his inclinations. Things like guerilla warfare and sneaky nighttime maneuvers across the Delaware may not have been his style but they became his destiny.  Somehow Washington came to accept the sloppy army and chaotic war that he begrudgingly inherited.  Troops aren’t curtains; he had to learn to guide what he could not control.  Instead of making choices based on how things “should be” he worked with what is.  It’s strange to think that our greatest triumphs in life could be in some area that we’re not good at—or even want to be.

Sunk Costs

The bias of “Sunk Costs” is a strong one (as we discussed here).  Whenever we’ve invested a lot of energy or resources into a plan, we are biased to stay with it even long after it’s become a bad idea. In Part 1 we discussed Washington’s indecisiveness at the disastrous battle of Fort Washington (which was, incidentally, the first “Pentagon” in American history).  The issue of “Sunk Costs” was surely a source of this indecisiveness.  Imagine investing 2 months of effort building a strong fort only to abandon it.  He had to learn to “know when to hold ‘em…know when to walk away…” at least 200 years before Kenny Rogers would deliver this sound advice.

Bias: Wishes and Expectations

Our good decisions will forever be threatened by our wishes and expectations.  Many times the choice is between “having it our way” vs. being successful. To sum it up, biographer John McCullough writes, “It was such resolve and an acceptance of mankind and circumstances as they were, not as he wished them to be, that continued to carry Washington through.” -John McCullough, “1776”.

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The Courage to Risk Making a Bad Decision: The George Washington Story Part 1

What do you do when there’s only two choices and neither one is safe?  Or more bluntly, do I have the courage to make a bad decision?

Indecisive could describe George Washington’s early military career. By all accounts he wasn’t sure he wanted the job in the first place.  Leading a largely untrained and undisciplined army, he was always wary of open battle with the British.  If there was a tough decision to make, he was likely to split his army up to  “cover all the options” in lieu of following his instincts.  This issue came to a crisis point in November, 1776 where his indecisiveness compromised his army in the battle for Manhattan, New York.  In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

The choice that he had to make was whether to defend the fort or to abandon it.  Though Washington would voice a vague feeling that the fort should be abandoned, he left the decision to General Nathanial Greene.  Greene was similarly conflicted and naturally kept looking to Washington for direction, “His Excellency General George Washington has been with me for several days…but finally nothing concluded on…”.  

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.  Days would pass and, perhaps by default, the decision was made to defend the fort and more than 2800 soldiers were captured.  Only ~800 survived the ensuing imprisonment. 

A Great Leader Doesn’t Delegate Failure

Maybe in the back of his mind, Washington figured that if he delegated this horrible choice, then someone else could take the blame for whatever disaster ensued. Or maybe he didn’t have the confidence that he was, indeed, the best possible ‘chooser’.  The result was Washington’s worse nightmare come true. After it was all done, he ended up taking the blame anyways, both in his heart and in public opinion.  He had the option to blame it on Greene, in fact it was even subtly suggested to him, but he chose not to do so.  Washington shouldered his part of the blame and gained the unwavering trust of one of only two generals who would stay by his side for the entire eight arduous years of the revolutionary war (the other was Henry Knox a la “Fort Knox”) .  A good leader doesn’t delegate failure.  A great leader values loyalty over popularity.

The Pain of Improvement

After this incident, Washington faced growing criticism, insubordination, and concern among other leaders about his ability to lead decisively.  It’s the type of thing that could cripple a military career. Yet, for George Washington, it may have been just the thing he needed at just the right time.  In 1776, his job was not to have all the right answers, his job was grow himself into the kind of leader that could go on to win an eight year war against very unlikely odds.


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