TLG President & CEO
I have been listening to Washington by Ron Chernow. The book is the longest (48 hours on Audible) and the most detailed I have ever read (well…. listened to). I love to learn about leaders who have risen and/or fallen in the areas of politics, military, and business. Washington had his share of defeats and triumphs over the course of his lifetime. I must admit that I like to see defeats mixed with victories because it makes me feel better about the times that I have tripped and fallen along the way. Believe me, I am not comparing myself to George Washington, but in my little part of the world there are moments of truth and chances to perform like a virtuoso or a klutz. I know I have been a klutz and just hope I have been a virtuoso from time to time.
When the best of us are willing to step into our personal arenas, and the best of us always do, it is inevitable that paths up the steepest of hills are full of landmines. Sometimes you just get blown up. Ha….I just don’t know a better way to put it. It’s important, at this point, to say that no leader has ever, ever, accomplished greatness on their own. That’s why it’s called “leadership” – someone has to be following, partnering, ideating, leading, complaining, and so on. The best leaders are at the top of their game when the stakes are highest. I think most of them know when their actions/message is most critical. This brings me to a crucial point in Washington’s story.
We all know that George Washington was the general that led America to victory over an eight-year slog to its independence. We know about George’s trip across the Delaware and how he endured the hardships of winter, with his troops, at Valley Forge. That’s what they taught us in school, right? I don’t recall hearing about the “Newburgh Conspiracy”. Maybe I missed that day in my history class.
It occurred at the end of the war. Many of the officers in the Continental Army had secretly banded together to challenge the authority of the Confederation Congress. The primary impetus to the uprising was the inability of government to pay the militias and their officers, as promised. Remember, we are talking about five years with no pay in some cases. Here we had the heroes of the American Revolution who fought valiantly to win America’s independence and they were about to be disbanded with no money to their name.
The unrest created an atmosphere for mutiny. Would the military overthrow the fragile government, would they disband without providing further protection, or would they remain once they were given the order to disband?
I am pausing here to ask us to think about, whether it be family, social, business or another environment, situations where you have had a chance to step forward to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Where your words or lack there-of contributed to success, passivity, or outright failure. What have been the moments of truth for you?
I remember a time, as CEO of the Chicago YMCA, when I had one of those moments. We were at a camp retreat, for two days, with over one hundred of the organization’s top leaders. I was relatively new in the President role and the first person in the over 100-year history of the organization to be brought in from outside of Chicago. Frankly, I was the outsider and there was a Chicago way and that was the only way. Almost any new idea met with back door politics and resistance. Day one of the retreat was not good and I wasn’t feeling well-received. To put it another way I was not feeling the love as they say. In hindsight, which is almost always easier, I was stiff, all business, and operated by big goals.
After day one I spent most of the night thinking about how to turn day two around. I can’t say I rehearsed a message, which was a good thing. I did, however, decide to be human. I talked about my parents, my family, my challenges, and my best days and worst days. I spoke of my hopes of making an impact, and how I needed their support, and how we could do more to help more people and save more lives. I was vulnerable and I was sincere.
Day two was terrific. People felt a connection and they were willing to be part of new ideas and ways. It was the start of a ten year climb to impact over 1 million Chicagolanders each year. Over that period of time we became the largest YMCA in the world (NYC might say otherwise). More importantly, our team of staff and volunteers made a significant difference in the lives of people. Not everyone bought into the direction. Some left. And I listened and learned about organization’s history. There was a great deal to build upon. I was wrong to talk about change before talking about history. Showing respect for the past.
Back to General Washington – On March 15th, 1983, General Gates called a meeting to consider whether to disband the military or not after the order was given. Washington was not expected at the meeting but showed up and asked for the floor. He delivered a powerful message, asking attendees to “give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue by placing their full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress”.
Then there was vulnerability. Early on in his presentation he was stumbling through the words and then he pulled out his spectacles. Most in the audience had not seen his new appliance and didn’t know he was losing some of his sight. The war had aged him greatly. He said, “Gentleman, you must pardon me, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country”. It is said that at that point there was an unintentional disarming. People recognized that this stoic leader was so deeply impacted by the war. He didn’t have to say it but he was one of them and in it with them. It was reported that some of the officers wept openly. The idea of mutiny was squelched on the spot and the officers and men were eventually paid. It’s been said that one of Washington’s greatest victories was through his poignant words instead of on the battlefield.