When George Washington was put in charge of the army and tasked with beating the British, he had three major problems.
The first one was that the British were considered invulnerable, having overwhelmingly proven their power in many nations and continents.
The second problem was that the officers in the American army wanted the special privileges enjoyed by their British counterparts.
As Americans, they disliked the aristocratic class system. As officers, however, they wanted to be the aristocrats of the army, with all the perks and benefits.
Washington’s third major problem was that the soldiers were Americans, meaning that they were involved in the war specifically to be free from British aristocracy.
They didn’t like the idea of taking orders, being told what they could or couldn’t do, and being expected to line up, march in formation, and salute on cue.
Their only victories had come by ignoring such military rules, hiding behind trees and rocks and shooting the well-dressed British.
They simply didn’t trust the need for military order or discipline. It seemed like the very thing they were gathered to fight against.
These were daunting difficulties, and few leaders then or today would be up to the task.
But there was an interesting difference between Washington and the British commanders. This difference surprises nearly all historians when they discover it, but it is real nonetheless.
In short, the British commanders had naturally been promoted (at least partially) based on long strings of victory.
In contrast, Washington, as a colonial who worked under British commanders during his long, formative time as an officer, had learned most of his lessons by suffering various defeats.
Thus the two sides could not have been more different. One was backed by centuries of winning and funded by a nation used to conquering all in its path. Uniforms and weapons looked the same, and the tents in camp were pitched in long, ordered rows with military precision.
The other side was all frontier. Soldiers wore whatever clothes they had, shelters were makeshift and a jumble of different styles, and the weapons were mostly homemade or locally crafted — to the point that each soldier had to make his own bullets, or they wouldn’t fit his gun.
The British exemplified the power of uniformity; the Americans were individualized to a fault.
If you were Washington in this situation, what would you do?
Fortunately, Washington had two things going for him. First, he knew what it was like to win and also to lose, while his opponents could hardly conceive of losing.
Second, he was flexible. He knew he couldn’t win by doing things in any proven way, so he had to come up with something else.
The British commanders were afraid to do things different, since this would lead to criticism from London’s military establishment. Washington was free to try whatever might work.
Historian Page Smith put it this way:
“Improvisation was the strength of the Americans: the ability to respond to novel situations with novel solutions, on the spur of the moment, without orders or directions.”
That is how an overwhelmingly superior enemy is beaten, at least tactically.
Washington trained his officers to be servant leaders rather than noblemen, and he convinced his soldiers to obey and then improvise (not improvise rather than obey). It was a success, but one that cost dearly. In truth, winning the war at all was a miracle.
There are many books written about George Washington, but it was his ability to overcome these three challenges that I most admire.
He did what few leaders have ever done — he threw away the handbook and improvised. This puts him among the top leaders of history.
On a personal note, I want to share one more thing. Most people know that George Washington was quiet, stoic, and had a strong control over his emotions. In fact, John Adams first advocated Washington to lead the army because of this trait.
What most people don’t know is that on a few, rare occasions Washington took the opposite approach. Jefferson once wrote:
Washington got into one of those rages where he cannot command himself.”
Others described him when he lost his temper as “terrifying” to those few who faced his wrath.
Most people saw him like Governor Turnbull described him: “Sober, steady, and calm.”
Those who knew him best understood that this calm was hard work for him, that he was deeply passionate and had to exercise an iron will to keep himself in check.
I’m sharing this because I think we moderns are losing our freedoms in large part because we don’t read history. The lessons and examples of history are incredibly powerful.
If we come to really know Washington, for example, I think we’ll have a much better ability to influence Washington D.C.
If we don’t know Washington — or Lincoln, Burke, Sydney, Basiat, etc. — our freedoms will continue to decline.
The future of freedom may depend on how much history our generation reads.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.