The NCSL Blog


By Lesley Kennedy

Mount Vernon, Va.—If you want to talk leadership skills in Washington, D.C., you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of putting ideas into action than the man for whom the place is named.

Peter CressyThe annual NCSL Capitol Forum took place in the nation’s capital last week with hundreds of legislators, legislative staff and policy experts meeting to tackle state-federal issues and set the States’ Agenda.

And at a session held at the George Washington Leadership Institute—a special event held for NCSL staff at Mount Vernon, the historic home of George and Martha Washington—the discussion centered on the first U.S. president’s unparalleled ability to use communication, credibility, collaboration and vision to lead change.

“I think as a leader, as a manager, as a visionary, he may very well be the most relevant of all historic figures,” says Peter Cressy, director of Leadership Programs, who spoke during the session. “The leaders in that time had no executive experience unless they had picked it up through business or running a big plantation, which fortunately Washington had.”

And now, nearly 220 years after his death, there’s no question there are problems facing our country, Cressy adds, but Washington would respond that there’s nothing we can’t overcome.

“Basically, in his farewell address, he said, ‘We have this bountiful country. We have great oceans on either side to protect us. And we are the last great hope for democracy and the peoples of the world. And if we fail, we only have ourselves to blame.’ Imagine that,” he says. “From this guy who didn’t have this huge, philosophical formal education. What an extraordinary note to end his term of service on. It was a clarion call then, it’s a clarion call today.”

We rounded up seven of the strengths Cressy says made Washington a great leader:

Be A Listener

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, to which Washington was unanimously elected president, Cressy says he formally spoke just three times—opening and closing the convention and chiming in on what number of people should constitute representation. “What he did do,” Cressy notes, “was to lobby every single night at dinner with the various factions. His whole purpose was to keep everybody working together.”

Be Patient

Washington, Cressy adds, was focused on masterful execution. “Get it done. Pay attention to details. Get it right,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a constituent or whether it’s how you’re going to plow your field. How often have you talked about strategic patience? It’s very, very rare and what we’re discovering is that strategic patience is absolutely essential to really getting things right.”

And part of strategic patience, he notes, means you don’t chase every idea. “You only chase the right ones—the ones that are really focused on the vison. And you don’t get upset or thrown off by the problems that inevitably come. If you are strategically patient, as Washington discovered, then you have the chance to be truly strategically agile. … This notion of strategic patience combined with strategic agility is really worth taking away.”

Be a Manager

“While we always think of leadership as the glamorous thing, being a good leader without being a good manager is for naught,” Cressy says. “You can have a very nice conversation with a constituent, but if you don’t follow up, you got yourself a black eye. Washington was incredible on details. Remember, he didn’t have an executive branch, he didn’t have an army corps of engineers. He didn’t have an HR group. He’s building this as he goes.”

Be OK With Making Mistakes

To be ambitious is to be a little rash, or even arrogant, Cressy notes. “(Washington) made more mistakes than the groundhog who gets up in February. But this guy learns from every mistake. … He learns how to control his ambition.”

Be Visible

Visibility, according to Cressy is, in a way, the essence of politics. “You and your bosses have to be visible to your constituents,” he says. “But in those days, general and noble people didn’t necessarily want to be all that visible. During the long winters, the British generals and senior officers all went into the cities and had cotillions and ate well. Not Washington. He stayed at Valley Forge. And we have wonderful, heart-rendering letters from soldiers writing home that he’s here, he’s trying and we’re gonna win. And you see his presence makes all the difference.”

Be Perceptive

“You can’t be a good communicator if you’re not perceptive,” Cressy says. “You’ve got to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

Be Credible

Washington harnessed the power of quiet conversations, the power of legislative diplomacy and the power of bipartisanship, Cressy says. “His credibility, his authority, was fantastic and, as a result all of those complicated issues, and the great trust people had for Washington, I think we can say collaboration is really at the essence of being able to lead, manage and/or react to change.

“His credibility is absolutely essential. Being trusted and having credibility is the great force multiplier in negotiations of any kind--and that’s leadership at its heart.”

Lesley Kennedy is a web editor for NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.