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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