George Washington c. 1772. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia
A great leader has the vision and drive to want to take their organization to a new level, and the skills and charisma to inspire followers who can make that happen. America has been blessed by many great leaders over the years: Washington, Lincoln, FDR. They established and fundamentally transformed our country. Washington was truly an American Cincinnatus. He accepted the role of a military commander-in-chief when the new nation needed an army to challenge England, but then – against all expectations – he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon after the Revolution succeeded.
Washington’s greatest success, however, wasn’t military. It was his example of personal integrity and disinterest that encouraged his followers to accomplish great things. Leadership is a team sport: no one can do it alone! Early in the war, Henry Knox transported 60 tons of cannon over 300 miles of wilderness to force the British out of Boston. After the war, Washington encouraged both Hamilton and Jefferson to articulate and develop their competing commercial and agrarian visions for America, both of which he saw were essential for the fledgling nation to mature. And after he willingly stepped down from power – for the second time – the US didn’t split into military factions and devolve into civil war.
Henry Knox sledging his cannon. Public Domain. Source: National Archives
Because the greatest measure of any leader is their legacy: not whether they can hand-pick a successor. Any autocrat can exert authority and do that! It’s whether they established the institutions and mores for the organization during their tenure that can carry their vision forward – assuming it’s the right vision, and going forward means moving in the right direction.
Charles de Gaulle supposedly said that the cemeteries are filled with indispensable leaders. That’s of course true. But what he didn’t say is that succession is actually an indispensable part of leadership. Only after they pass on can the world truly take the measure of their greatness – or its lack.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”