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.
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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