George Washington was a Fake

George Washington was a Fake

George Washington was an amateur. His military background was weak, his leadership experience minimal, his tactical training nonexistent. He had no business leading an army.

At least that’s what he believed.

When the Continental Congress selected him to lead their new military, he wrote his wife and told her he tried hard to get out of the appointment, in his words, because “of its being a trust too great for my capacity.”

The day after he accepted the position, he stood up before the Congress and warned them they had made a mistake:

“But lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”

And he was right. Consider that in 1775, when appointed:

  • He had grown up with barely more than an elementary education.
  • His military career (in the Virginia militia) was mostly a string of failures.
  • He had never led an organization or large army, especially one as complex as the strung-together colonial militias.
  • He was not charismatic or a good public speaker.
  • He was often very indecisive, and at other times very impetuous.

There were other officers that would’ve been the obvious choice candidates (and wanted the job). We know that the doubts followed George Washington for some time, because he expresses them regularly in his private letters. But in the end, we know, the Continental Congress was right.

A Comparison Game

This feeling of being out of your depth is very common. We compare ourselves to those around us to gauge & understand our progress. In my role as a financial advisor I regularly hear comments like:

  • “How much money do most couples our age have saved up?”
  • “My business would grow better if I had an MBA like those other guys.”
  • “Who am I to be tackling this big problem?”
  • “In some ways I feel like a phony.”

The comparison game helps us understand where we are, but it comes with a dark side. High achievers often feel an impulse called the imposter syndrome, the fear that they’ll be found out to be a fraud. Madonna, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, and actress Emma Watson have all been open about feeling this way. Even Albert Einstein, at the end of his life, expressed fear that he was only “an involuntary swindler.”

When Inexperience Is Best

It may have been Washington’s inexperience that allowed him to ultimately find success. Studies of past leaders have found that outsiders usually make the biggest impact. It’s probable that the obvious candidates (that were overlooked) in Washington’s day wouldn’t have made the bold moves, taken enough risks, or been as inspirational as our first president.

If you find yourself believing you might be an imposter, follow Washington’s lead to improve your chances of success. He ended up being one of the most successful leaders in American history because:

  1. He surrounded himself with the right people. He gathered around himself those he believed to be smarter than himself, and he constantly held councils of war to get their advice.
  2. He set aside personal gain for the greater good. He served without pay, and in unprecedented moves, twice unselfishly gave up his position of authority. He was the embodiment of what Jim Collins calls “Level 5 Leadership.”
  3. He believed deeply in his cause. “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army,” Washington wrote. He cared sincerely about American independence. He knew his why.

So next time you feel you’re in way over your head, remember you’re in good company. At least it’s not like an entire nation depends on your success.

Jonathan Harrison is an advisor at Sound Stewardship, LLC, where he helps generous and grateful people plan and manage their money so they can have an impact in the world.

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