Americans suffer the myth of the perfect leader. Maybe
most people do. It seems like we are always looking for
them in our next boss, movie idol, public figure, sports
figure etc. Then we find out they are not perfect and we
become disillusioned and sometimes bitter in our disappointment.
President Kennedy was, for many of my generation, a remarkable
and visionary leader that rejuvenated our sense of spirit
and drive, asking what we might do for our country. We
found inspiration in his words, his vision and his dreams.
We watched him grow dramatically from the debacle at the
Bay of Pigs to the Cuban missile crisis. But more often
than not when mentioned today there is some reference to
his well documented womanizing rather than his accomplishments
during the brief time he was in office. Martin Luther King
was killed before his fortieth birthday and during his
lifetime made a country confront whether or not it truly
believed in a declaration that it had announced to the
world nearly two-hundred years earlier. But many question
his alleged womanizing and the validity of his doctoral
dissertation. While few of us would condone such behavior,
we often ignore the remarkable lives of such people forgetting
that in their life span they grew and overcame such foibles.
Instead we become disillusioned with them and reject them.
My generation of disillusioned teachers went into school
rooms and removed the pictures of Abe Lincoln and George
Washington from the walls of classrooms and threw them
into trash piles because we found out that they too were
imperfect and flawed.
I too have suffered this myth.
A few years ago, my cousin and I were discussing a current
leader of the day when I blurted out, "Yes, but, Andy,
he just has feet of clay." Andy smiled and said"Yes,
he does, ...but then again... name one that didn't." I
didn't take this remark lightly because you see my cousin
is a remarkable man. He has been his whole life. As a young
Marine in Korea on Hill 922 he was wounded taking some
shrapnel to his left shoulder. He refused a deserved purple
heart. His refusal was based on two reasons. One, the old
adage, "If you take one that is undeserved, you may
get one that you do deserve." But probably the main
reason is that his cousin, my uncle, was severely wounded
young Marine in the second World War at Iwo Jima. His
thinking was simply that he wouldn't take a medal for something
for which his cousin nearly died. Andy worked his way through
law school as a deputy sheriff and later went on to Congress
where he served for some thirty years. During his last
year in office he returned some $56,000 in salary. He had
returned portions of his salary since his first year in
office. He simply thought it unethical to vote his own
pay increases. Known to run the most frugal office in Congress,
he was elected to office during his last campaign on a
re-election fund of some $16,000. How? You see he didn't
have to buy radio and television time to explain to his
constituency who he was and what he stands for. They knew,
simply by his actions. I mention these things because my
cousin is a man of character who has served his whole life.
He has seen both the best and worst in mankind and yet
he remains philosophical. What was my cousin really saying
to me about leadership and the perfect leader?
That very day we had been discussing,
none other than, George Washington, the "father of
I think he may be the perfect example of what my cousin
was trying to say. As a young man, Washington was mightily
ambitious. He wanted power, property, wealth and a command
in the British army. Did you know it was believed that
he cheated people out of property; as much as 18,000 acres?
As a young volunteer, Washington's debacle at Fort Wilderness
is well chronicled. When he does finally get the command
of an Army, his battle record was less than remarkable,
he won four, lost nine, tied one. If he were a football
coach, we would have fired him, but... he lost early and
won late. What seems to be happening to George Washington?
During the war the British
ran an armada of ships up the Potomac River and they threatened
to destroy Washington's home and much of what he had spent
his whole life amassing. Jefferson even wrote him and pleaded
with him to come home warning him that he may lose everything.
Washington replied to let them destroy it all for what
they were involved in was much more important than anything
he had acquired in his lifetime. You see, we often forget
that every major nation of the world at the time was ruled
by a monarchy. This was the first time that a people were
declaring their independence under an umbrella of self
rule. What are we seeing in Washington, the young ambitious,
land hungry man has matured. He has become a man of vision
who was now willing to sacrifice everything for something
bigger than his personal wealth and possessions. What seems
to be happening to Washington?
But Washington's real test
comes at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. An anonymous
letter was being circulated among the American officers
who were bitter over the lack of payment for their services.
Many had fought the entire war and had never been paid.
The letter suggested a coup and they would make Washington
king. After eight years of horrific fighting they had grown
to love and respect him; they shared a "bond like
no other bond." And now in their frustration and anger
at not being paid, they decided to take control and make
king. They offered him everything he had wanted his entire
life, power, wealth, land and property. He was horrified!
Distressed at such a suggestion,
Washington asked that these officers meet to discuss their
grievances. Spending some three days writing a speech that
he hoped would change their hearts, and minds, Washington
strode into the meeting room, sensing their hostility.
Many turned away from his anger, as they listened to his
words of reason. He began his speech by reminding them
of how much he cared for them and reminded them of the
many sufferings they had shared over the last eight years
of the war. He argued that this country was made up of
neighbors, relatives and friends and they were choosing
to enslave these people to a monarchy, that they were choosing
to destroy the very thing they had fought so ardently to
defend these past years. Finally, while the circulating
letter had argued against being persuaded by reason to
abandon the coup, he suggested that very ability to argue
and reason is what they had fought so hard to establish.
The first country in the history of the world to know self
As he completed his speech
he could tell, by simply looking into the faces of these
men, that all his persuasion had failed. He then remembered
that he had a letter with him from a Congressman that promised
that if they would be patient, they would eventually get
the monies owed them. He reached for the letter, forgetting
for the moment, that to read the letter, he would need
his spectacles. You see Washington had worn spectacles
for years, but because of his sense that it was a sign
of aging, a sign of weakness, only his intimates were aware
of the glasses that he needed to read.
As he started to pull the letter
from his pocket, he suddenly stopped. He realized that
without the glasses he could not read the letter. His men
sensed something was wrong. His hands began to tremble.
This hesitancy, this obvious moment of vulnerability caught
the attention of the hardened soldiers. It was out of character
for a man normally so assured. But then, Washington simply
reached for his spectacles and stated "Gentleman,
if you would permit me to put on my spectacles, for you
have not only grown gray in your service, I have also gone
It is said that many of these
hardened, battle tried soldiers wept. in that moment of
humility, Washington reminded these soldiers that the first
rule of leadership is to serve... not rule. With this simple
act of sincere humility, George Washington gave back to
you and me this imperfect country. This one simple, humble
act, Jefferson declared precluded these men from destroying
the very thing they had fought to preserve. It has been
said by some it may have been the most important meeting
in the history of this country.
I was fifty years old before
I heard that story. I wondered to myself why my history
teachers never told me about that George Washington. That
story is such a better story than that mythical, little
cherry tree story. The real story makes him so human. But
most of all we see so starkly what my cousin was saying.
What was it my cousin gently
reminding me of? What was he hoping I would figure out?
You see, we have no right to expect perfection in our leadership.
But we do have the right to expect that we and our leadership
will learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. That
we will develop and grow from these experiences. What my
cousin was really saying is not perfection but... are we
learning along the way? George Washington had learned so
much along the way. The great ones always do, whether as
patriots, politicians, parents, coaches, wives or husbands.
They all, if they grow, if they learn, embrace humility,
sacrifice, service and conclude that there is no better
reward in life then spending your energies in a mighty
cause for a worthy people. You see, I thought for years
that Washington was the "father of the country" because
he was our first president. But it's not. It's simply because
he had the humility to not be king. King George III was
on the throne in England at the time. When he heard about
the offer for Washington to become king, he stated, "If
he can refuse that, why then he is the greatest man alive."
Because, you see, men cannot normally turn away from such
things as power, glory and wealth.
Lincoln himself declared, "Washington
is the mightiest name on earth... long since mightiest
in the cause of civil liberty. To add brightness to the
sun or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible.
Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name and
in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on."
And no wonder. You should teach this story to your people,
teach it to your family, your children. Teach them that
you will fail, that you will make mistakes but those mistakes
will lead to you learning and over coming. Teach them these
things... unless of course, you are perfect!
William S. Westfall has provided liability, leadership
and supervisory training to thousands of police officers
in nearly every state in the United States, as well as,
having been featured
as a guest speaker on the Law Enforcement Television Network
(LETN), the Fire Emergency Television Network (FETN), the
Federal Emergency Management Agencies (FEMA), and the National
Fire Academy (NFA).
Bill is the Co-Director of the Gallagher-Westfall
Group - a company whose vision is to nurture
and support the conscious growth of individuals and organizations,
and the attainment
of excellence in personal and organizational development,
leadership and liability management, while fostering
a balance between the physical,
mental, emotional and the spiritual needs of the people
who are the organization.
For the Public Agency Training
Council, Bill is the instructor for Mastering
Performance Management - Phases I and II