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What Makes a Great Leader?

What makes a great leader? Given our current crop, it’s easy to forget the genuine characteristics.


In late 1776, General George Washington and his army were seriously screwed.  The American Revolution had taken a dreadful toll on what was, from the beginning, a ragtag army. When Washington first took control earlier that year, it wasn’t even an army at all.  As Washington described it, he had more like the “raw materials” for an army with no name, no uniforms, no flag, no discipline, no military experience and only 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. Made up of crude and tattered shelters, the filthy encampments were ravaged by dysentery, typhus and typhoid fever.  The conditions were about as nasty as nasty can get.

Nevertheless, Washington took command with “the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and to being obeyed.  He was not austere. There was no hint of arrogance.  ‘Amiable’ and ‘modest’ were words frequently used to describe him, and there was a softness in his eyes that people remembered.”  According to Nathanael Greene, a major general of the Continental Army, when Washington arrived “joy was visible on every countenance, and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.”  But things went downhill, fast.  Just months into his command, the Continental Army had suffered several agonizing losses and men were deserting by the hundreds. Those who stayed were sick, starving, exhausted and dispirited. 

Many of Washington’s troops and two of his closest confidants  Joseph Reed, his most trusted friend, and General Charles Lee, his second-in-command  had lost faith in him entirely. The effort of the rebels was all but lost. Then came the defining moment that proved we were destined to be a nation: The Battle of Trenton and Washington’s night crossing of the Delaware.  

On December 26, 1776, with his options running out and with just 2,400 men, General George Washington commanded his depleted troops across the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey in severely treacherous conditions. Once across, he led the Continental Army against Hessian soldiers and captured almost their entire force. This essential American victory reignited the spirit of the rebels in the colonies and proved that victory was possible. 

Many factors contributed to America’s independence, but none were more profound than Washington’s conviction, perseverance and leadership. Through times of immense despair and loneliness  “The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few people know the predicament we are in.”  Washington never lost faith. He also never forgot what was at stake: “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.”        

True leaders inspire others to fight harder, reach higher, dream wider and feel deeper.  Leaders bravely and without hesitation confront the concerns and challenges of those they lead and take them where they sometimes don’t want to go, but to where they need to be.  True leaders don’t watch polls. True leaders don’t consider November elections.  True leaders don’t surrender to party pressure or punt to political advisors. True leaders don’t backtrack when things get tough.


In 1787, delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island said, “no thanks!”) met for four sweltering months to write a document they entitled The Constitution of the United States of America. The debate at the Constitutional Convention was extensive and often heated given the vast differences in the philosophies and motivations of the attendees, coupled with the significance of the issues being decided (proportional representation, how to elect the president, and the fate of slavery, just to name a few).  In the end, regardless of how contentious the debate, 55 men listened, compromised and periodically changed their minds, and they eventually created one of the most powerful documents in world history. 


Its first seven words say it all:  We the People of the United States.  The U.S. Constitution is a grant of power by the people to elected officers and representatives that work for the people.  The central theme throughout the founding documents, and the point that is made the most explicit, is that the ultimate power resides with the people. There should be no confusion on this point because the intention of the document is undeniable.

However, as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. The brilliant architects of the Constitution gave each of us an enormous responsibility when they established America as a republic, and they made it very clear that our duty extends far beyond stepping up to a ballot box.

To refresh your memory, a democracy is defined as a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and is exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically free elections. These are obviously hallmarks of our governmental structure, but our system goes further. A republic is a government having a chief of state, where supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote. In a republic, the will of the people is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them.


See how much control we are given in this setup?!? Power is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them. Them being the body of citizens entitled who vote. That’s us!!  It’s fascinating how easily we forget our tremendous responsibility in this.


As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  He responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  ‘Ol Benjy was so wise.  Democratic republics aren’t sustained by placing power in the hands of the people alone.  Whether ours succeeds or fails will be determined by our commitment to active and informed participation. Well, that plus our adamant refusal to let two unproductive and ineffective political parties hijack our country.

In his farewell address to the nation, President George Washington praised our system’s ability to represent individual differences. But, even way back then, he identified political parties as a specific threat to our union: “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations.” 


He further warned that parties “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party.”  Washington went on to say that, if these factions are tolerated, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”


George’s prediction proved 1000% correct. This is exactly what has happened.

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