Takeaways From George Washington’s Farewell Address for Today’s Leaders

Barb Krantz TaylorBy Barb Krantz Taylor

washingtonI thought I knew about President’s Day. After all, it’s been a holiday since before I can remember. But after a bit of research, I learned that the first President’s Day was “celebrated” on February 22, 1800, to honor U.S. presidents. The day was chosen to specifically honor George Washington, since February 22 was his birthday. In 1862, Congress established the tradition of reading George Washington’s farewell address to the nation on President’s Day and this tradition has continued ever since.

I really hope the actual address is read again this year. It certainly has much that applies to our current political and business climate! It speaks directly about people’s natural inclination to find comfort in and cling to “party loyalty.” It also points out the dangers inherent in such unwavering loyalty, which is certainly a current topic in American politics.

From a leadership perspective, the address offers quite a bit for organizations to consider. One of the main points of Washington’s address was that we are stronger together, rather than apart.   That, in spite of challenging differences in life experiences, personal values, and environments in which we live, finding the strength of unity exceeds the risks of building trust and finding ways to co-exist in peace and collaboration. In other words, while it is natural to distrust the “other,” to protect what we have—lest our enemies take it away—we are all better off in the long run if we can find common ground.

Corporations—and their leaders—often thrive on competition. The desire to win, to achieve, to do better, and better, and better are just some of the characteristics common in successful leaders. However, this personality tendency is often overused. It is unconsciously turned internally against other functions and peers. When this happens, organizations lose.

Lest you think this does not apply to you, beware! It happens to the best of us. Only brutally honest self-awareness, borne of humility and the willingness to take the position of the other can save us. As Washington himself said,

“In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish—that they will control the usual current of the passions or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good, that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism—this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare by which they have been dictated.”

If you need the counsel of an “old and affectionate friend,” contact me. I’d be glad to help you see where your competitive spirit may be leading you awry.