A True Values-based Leader: George Washington

I am often asked for examples of true values-based leaders. Given my focus on the four principles (self reflection, balance, true self-confidence and genuine humility), it is a very high bar. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and watch Pope Francis speak at Independence Square…..an experience I will never forget. I believe Pope Francis is an amazing values-based George_Washington_at_Mt._Vernonleader.

Little did I realize another opportunity to study a true value-based leader would occur the following week!  I was invited to give a leadership talk at the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, VA. I had always known (like most Americans) that George Washington was the “Father of our Country”, but I had no idea of the history of Mount Vernon and the amazing library that was built there just a few years ago.

After my leadership presentation at the library, Curt Viebranz, the CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, took me on a tour of the estate and gave me a fantastic tutorial on George Washington. The history of Mount Vernon is quite fascinating. I learned that a group of women purchased Washington’s home in 1853 when it was in extreme disrepair and established the “Mount Vernon Ladies Association”, to preserve it for all future generations. The association, which consists of women from 25 different states, is the governing body for the estate. To understand the background, take a look at their website.

Additionally, I learned how perfectly Washington lived the four principles:

Self Reflection: Washington wrote more than 130,000 letters during his lifetime (many of which are at the presidential library).

Balance: He clearly took the time to seek to understand all sides of issues. He realized it was important to have strong states rights AND a central government to hold the colonies together.

True Self-confidence: Washington knew his strengths, and the areas in which he was weak. He admitted his shortcomings, and surrounded himself with people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.

Genuine Humility: Despite the requests of the America people to have him continue to serve as president, he was very focused on avoiding the creation of a monarchy and insisted on stepping down in 1796 after serving 8 years as President of the United States. He died three years later in 1799.

Mount Vernon is an amazing place. If you have never been there, I encourage you to make the trip.


  • Harry,
    Well done – the point about the monarchy is especially important. For the most part the world knew no other model at that point in time; Washington was truly a radical rebel in his own way.
    On another note, I’ve always wondered about Gorbachov and his fit on your model. Likeyour note here about Washington, and in a similar way he is perhaps best remembered as being a great humble leader. Instead of escalating the cold war, he allowed peace to reign by not making things worse and recognized the ineffectiveness of the USSR. His was perhaps as important a move for us cold war children as any other. .. . .


  • Professor Kraemer – as a former student and fan of the values-based leadership approach, thank you for your continued contributions to the Kellogg community. My question for you is this: in evaluating who qualifies as a “true values-based leader,” is it correct to limit our assessment to publicly displayed values and virtues, or should we take a holistic view of an individual (including their private lives)? In this sense, how does morality or the complexity of an individual play into how we define a “true values-based leader?” George Washington was indeed a great leader. However, in reading your post, I couldn’t help but reflect that he was a complex figure who struggled deeply with moral issues regarding his status as a slave owner. This complexity is reflected directly on the Mount Vernon association website:

    “Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.”

    There is moral hazard involved in whitewashing this (e.g. he was just doing what others did at the time, etc.), as there is the criticism of applying today’s prism of morality to yesterday’s reality. How do we reconcile the moral complexity of individual’s personal and professional lives in evaluating whether they are indeed a true values-based leader. Put bluntly: can George Washington be a true values-based leader and also a slave owner (who albeit freed the majority of his slaves upon his death)? This is a complex question, and certainly one that’s made me reflect about the blurring line of values, morality and public vs. private life as a leader.


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