I have the privilege and the challenge of teaching leadership-oriented courses to students in the Idaho State University College of Business. It is a pleasure to teach these students. The challenge is helping them grasp leadership lessons in a way that will stick with them well beyond the time they finish the course.
One way I have them learn about leadership is by analyzing the behaviors (rather than the accomplishments) of a leader of their choice. The leaders they choose typically come from the business world, but can be from other arenas as well. They quickly find in their research that many of their selected prominent leaders’ accomplishments are accomplished in ways that are not worth imitating (i.e., using force and intimidation, treating people unethically, amoral manipulation, etc). It is always interesting to watch students study a leader who they are interested in because of what he or she has accomplished, only to be left figuratively with a bad taste in their mouth when they look deeper into how they accomplished it. There are important lessons to be learned from this discovery.
I have reviewed many students’ work on various leaders while teaching at ISU. To me George Washington stands out among leaders for his ability to be trusted with immense power and not be intoxicated by it. Lord Acton gives the famous line that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There was a moment in history when Washington had absolute power and did not allow it to corrupt him.
He was the leader of the colonial military forces and had just shocked the world by defeating far superior British forces. With the British fleet retreating, as the traditional script through history goes, he should have seized the power of the government.
That is the path taken by pretty much every successful revolutionary military leader in history. In fact, prominent army leaders suggested that he do so. Col. Lewis Nicola, frustrated with Congress’ inability or unwillingness to pay the continental troops for their services, strongly suggested a constitutional monarchy, with Washington seizing control as monarch. Washington responded privately to Lewis with horror at the request, “Be assured, sir, no occurrence in the course of the war has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.”
Washington ultimately gave power back to the Congress and retreated to his farm. Informed that Washington was going to resign power back to Congress, rival King George III of England said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." To King George’s point, giving up tremendous power is contrary to human nature, and our nation is very fortunate to have had such a leader.
With my background as an organizational behavior scholar, the lens that I bring to these discussions with my students involves how organizations can put processes in place to hire leaders who will likely benefit organizational objectives and facilitate growth and progress among employees. So how can organizations put processes in place to promote more Washington-type leaders?
In my view, although perhaps difficult to implement, there are two things that will make this more likely to occur.
1. Be wary of the eager self-nominator. Washington was sought for by his compatriots because they trusted his decision making and commitment to the cause. Note, he did not seek the post and only took it reluctantly. To the extent possible, have organization members choose leadership candidates rather than rely solely on the candidate’s desire for the position. By all means, avoid those who believe they are entitled to a leadership role.
2. Do not treat leadership positions as a reward. Washington was not promised lavish estates or future dominion if he took the job. In fact, the job called for massive self-sacrifice on behalf of the American cause. Washington was only willing to do so because he valued what the would-be nation was attempting to accomplish. In practice, you want rewards to be tied to how much someone values and accomplishes organizational objectives, not for holding a specific leadership role. When the only way to “make a payday” within an organization is to become promoted leader, then individuals will be tempted to want the leadership role, not because they value the mission of the organization or because they want to engage in the selfless tasks involved in actually leading, but because they want the financial rewards that come with being promoted. The leadership-position-as-reward approach is more likely to attract those who will not see their role as enabling followers’ success and serving them, but rather extorting or using subordinates in ways that benefit future ladder-climbing.
Dr. Tyler Burch is an associate professor of management in the College of Business at Idaho State University.