In order to become a famous inventor, president, scientist, or just about anything else with a semblance of importance, you have to know how to get things done. With that in mind, we know that we can learn a lot about productivity and leadership from these types, so we figured we'd look into exactly how they do it, starting with President George Washington.
George Washington was the quintessential jack of all trades. He not only led the United States in the Revolutionary War, he was also our first president. It takes some serious management and leadership skills to get that much done, so here are three of our favorite tips we've gleaned from him.
Maximize Your Strengths and Listen to Everyone
It's no secret that American was the weaker side in the Revolutionary War. Washington's troops were outnumbered by the British in both manpower and firepower, but somehow the then commander-in-chief George Washington found a way to win the war.
Author David Hackett Fisher looked at the turning points of the Revolutionary War in his book Washington's Crossing. The key takeaway, and the thing we all learned in elementary school, is that George Washington decided to use guerilla tactics instead of facing the British head-on as was the custom at the time. This wasn't just a decision that came overnight of course. Washington and his generals had to look at the strengths of the American army and figure out how to maximize them, even if that meant breaking long-standing rules of war.
While most of us know that the Revolutionary War was won with tactics, it was also because Washington was willing to listen to anyone regardless of rank. Fisher explains how Washington differed from the British in the way he made decisions before the Battle of Trenton:
That night British and American councils of war made different decisions—and also made them differently. Again [officer] Cornwallis imposed his plan from the top down, against the judgement of able inferiors, and prepared to attack in the morning. Washington in his council of war welcomed the judgements of others and presided over an open process of discovery and decision that yielded yet another opportunity. in the night, Washington disengaged his forces from an enemy only a few yards away, and an exhausted American army found the will and strength to make another night march toward the British base at Princeton.
We're all aware that ideas can come from anywhere, and sometimes beginner's can come up with better ideas than experienced people. Washington knew that too, and when taking on an enemy that was far bigger than him, he looked to anyone—regardless of age or rank—for ideas.
Create a Set of Rules for Yourself
It might seem silly to think you need to write out a list of rules to live by, but that's exactly what George Washington did when he copied down and adapted The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. While most of these rules are about etiquette and are a bit outdated now, NPR points out that the exercise is still interesting. Much like Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues, Washington's purpose was to outline how he wanted to live his life. Unlike Franklin, some of Washington's rules are pretty goofy, like "Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half dressed," but that doesn't me he doesn't include a few gems:
14. Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not upon anyone.
18. Read no letter, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave; come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
20. The gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.
35. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
73. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
Washington's idea here is essentially a to-do list for life. You certainly don't need to make a list of 110 things, but if you want to solidify something in your head—whether it's a healthy habit or a behavior change—listing them out as a sort of "personal guide to living" is certainly one way to go about it.
When he told Congress that he’d meet with them at noon, he could almost always be found striding into the chamber just as the clock was striking twelve.
Washington’s promptness extended to his mealtimes as well. He ate dinner each day at exactly 4 o’clock, and when he invited members of Congress to dine with him, and they arrived late, they were often surprised to find the president halfway done with his meal or even pushing back from the table. To his startled, tardy guest he would say, “We are punctual here. My cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has come.”
And when Washington’s secretary arrived late to a meeting, and blamed his watch for his tardiness, Washington quietly replied, “Then you must get another watch, or I another secretary.”
Whether it's a deadline or a meeting, being on time is important for jobs and personal relationships. Washington continued this strictness even after his retirement. In the biographer James Flexner's book Washington: The Indispensable Man, he describes his daily routine like so:
Washington rose with the sun. “If my hirelings are not in the places at that time, I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition. Then, having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further,” always finding more “wounds” in his structures that needed to be healed. At a little after seven o’clock breakfast was ready. “This over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces, come, as they say, out of respect to me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this from having a few social friends at a cheerful board!
“The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea, brings me within the dawn of candlelight, previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve that as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing table and acknowledge the letters I have received, but when the lights are brought, I feel tired and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well.
Although that last bit suggests Washington was terribly inefficient at returning letters (or in today's day, emails) late at night, he clearly kept to a strict schedule in order to get things done as efficiently as possible.
Washington's life was filled with tons of key moments, decisions, and tips that we didn't cover here, so don't think this is the end all of what we can learn from him. He also wasn't perfect, and had his fair share of vices and failures. That said, Washington certainly did things differently than most, and he had to work in an environment that didn't have a lot resources to accomplish a lot.
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