Business lessons from George Washington

As a history major, I am intrigued by the origins of our great country.  George Washington is a logical place to start.

This week we celebrate his birthday with Abraham Lincoln’s as Presidents Day – the third Monday in February.

But what do we really know about this founding father who led our country through the Revolutionary War?

The New York Times wrote:  By comparing textbooks used in the 1960s with those of today, researchers at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home in Virginia, have concluded that Washington now occupies just 10 percent of the space he had then.

A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni [for Mount Vernon] found that just 42 percent could name Washington as the man who was called “first in
war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Some of the business lessons that Washington espoused are still relevant today.  He was the definition of a pragmatist.  He was very practical and had a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach.  He was always focused on reaching a goal.

Washington was not your typical politician.  He believed in brevity.  His second inaugural address was only 134 words.

He was incredibly smart and shrewd.  As commander in chief of the American forces, Washington refused a regular salary and worked for expenses only.  He came out thousands of dollars ahead.  When offered the U.S. Presidency, he volunteered to work for expenses again – but this time Congress insisted he have a fixed salary.



Among his writings was this advice to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, January 15, 1783:  “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few; and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.  True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.  Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of every one, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse, remembering always the estimation of the widow’s mite, that it is not everyone that asketh that deserveth charity; all, however, are worthy of the inquiry, or the deserving may suffer.”

And to General William Woodford, he wrote:  “. . . be strict in your discipline; that is, to require nothing unreasonable of your officers and men, but see that whatever is required be punctually complied with.  Reward and punish every man according to his merit, without partiality or prejudice; hear his complaints, if well founded, redress them; if otherwise, discourage them, in order to prevent frivolous ones.  Discourage vice in every shape, and impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause, and what it is they are contending for.”

When he died, Washington provided in his will for the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of Martha, his wife.  Washington was the only member of the Virginia dynasty to free all of his slaves.

His leadership lessons are worth noting also.

In 1787 a resolution was introduced into the Constitutional Convention to limit the size of the Continental Army to 10,000 men.  The resolution seemed well on its way to passage until Washington was heard to say, “A very good idea.  Let us also limit by law, the size of any invading force to 3,000 men.”  The resolution was quickly defeated.

One reason the U.S. Congress has two houses is the following conversation between Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention, was not happy with the proposed bi-cameral system for the legislative branch of the new government.  During a visit to Washington at his home, Jefferson argued for the French uni-cameral system, one legislative house.

After much discussion around the tea table, Washington turned sharply to Jefferson and said, “You, sir, have just demonstrated by your own hand the superior excellence of the bi-cameral system.”

“How is that?” asked Jefferson.

“You just poured your tea from your cup into its saucer to cool.  In the same manner, we want the bi-cameral system to cool things.  A measure originates in one house, and in heat is passed.  The other house will serve as a wonderful cooler, and by the time it is debated and modified by various amendments, it is much more likely to become an equitable law.  No, we can’t get along without the saucer in our system.”


Mackay’s Moral:  I cannot tell a lie – pay attention to George Washington’s business smarts.

Listen up if you want to be successful

Two friends were walking down a busy street one evening when one paused and said, “Listen to those crickets chirping.”

“What crickets?” said the other man.  “I don’t hear any crickets.  Hey, you!”  He waved down a woman passing by.  “Do you hear crickets around here?”

“No,” the woman said, and went on her way.

The first man closed his eyes for a moment, then walked to a mailbox on a nearby lawn, reached down, and picked a cricket up from the grass.

“That’s amazing!” said his friend.  “How did you hear that?”

“Watch,” the first man said.

He dug into his pocket for a handful of change and tossed some coins onto the sidewalk.  Immediately the door of the house opened, a car stopped, and two passersby stopped to look for the coins.

The first man shrugged.  “It all depends on what you’re listening for.”

listeningWe were born with two ears but only one mouth.  Some people say that’s because we should spend twice as much time listening as talking.  Others claim it’s because listening is twice as difficult as talking.

Whatever the reason, developing good listening skills is critical to success.  There is a difference between hearing and listening.  Pay attention!  Your next job/account/paycheck may depend on it.

These statistics, from the International Listening Association website, really drive home the importance of listening.  At the same time, they demonstrate how difficult listening can be:

  • 85 percent of our learning is derived from listening.
  • Listeners are distracted, forgetful and preoccupied 75 percent of the time.
  • Most listeners only recall 50 percent of what they have heard immediately after hearing someone say it.
  • People spend 45 percent of their waking time listening.
  • Most people only remember about 20 percent of what they hear over time.
  • People listen at about 125 to 250 words per minute but think at about 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute.
  • There have been at least 35 business studies indicating listening as a top skill needed for success.

In addition, there are a number of behaviors to avoid if you want to be a really good listener: interrupting, avoiding eye contact, rushing the speaker and letting your attention wander.  Don’t rush ahead and finish the speaker’s thoughts, because you might take them in the wrong direction.  Arguing, as with a “yes, but” response, indicates that you were more interested in getting your own point across than listening to theirs.   Trying to top the speaker’s story doesn’t win you any points either.

Listening can be hard work, and some people are more challenging to listen to than others, but when you find yourself tuning out what someone is saying you should ask yourself why.

If you want people to listen to what you’re saying, make sure they feel like you have listened to them.  When we feel we are being listened to, it makes us feel like we are being taken seriously and what we say really matters.

In his book, “The 8th Habit,” management guru Stephen Covey tells a true story about the importance of asking other people their opinions.

Covey says W. “Bill” Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, described to him “the biggest lesson I have learned through the years.”

“It is,” said Marriott, “to listen to your people.  I find that if you have senior managers who really gather their people around them, get their ideas and listen to their input, you make a lot better decisions.”

Marriott said he learned this lesson from an encounter with President Dwight Eisenhower when Marriott was a young Ensign in the Navy.

“I had been in the navy for six months and had come home from the Supply Corps School for Christmas.  U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson came down to our farm with President Eisenhower.”

Marriott said it was extremely cold outside but that his father had put up targets outside for shooting.  He asked the President if he wanted to go outside and shoot or stay by the fire.

“He just turned to me,” said Marriott, “and said, ‘What do you think, Ensign?”

Marriott said he told the President it was too cold outside for shooting and to stay inside by the fire, which he did.

Marriott said that lesson, asking and listening to someone else’s opinion, has stayed with him and has been a big asset in his business.


Mackay’s Moral:  It’s amazing what you’ll hear if you just listen

Success is not about your lack of resources, it’s about being resourceful with what you have

Do you remember the TV show “MacGyver”?  He was the epitome of resourcefulness.  He would get trapped, usually in a building that contained a ticking time bomb, but he was able to free himself by being resourceful and using what was available to him, like duct tape or chewing gum.  I was always intrigued – and impressed.

I value resourcefulness highly in my employees.  Resourceful people can figure things out on their own.  They find a way to make things work. They find solutions to problems using imaginative methods.  They are able to use resources at their disposal to help them solve problems or overcome obstacles.

Resourcefulness seems to come naturally to some people.  They aren’t about to give up just because the odds are stacked heavily against them, even when it doesn’t involve ticking time bombs.

Consider what happened during the construction of the world-famous Brooklyn Bridge that spans the river tying Manhattan Island to Brooklyn.  In 1863, a creative engineer named John Roebling was inspired by an idea for this spectacular bridge.  But bridge-building experts throughout the world told him to forget it. They said it could not be done.


Roebling convinced his son, Washington, also an engineer, that the bridge could be built. The two of them developed the concepts of how it could be accomplished and how the obstacles could be overcome.  Remember, this occurred more than 150 years ago, without benefit of modern technology.

The project was only a few months into construction when a tragic accident on the site took the life of John Roebling.  Washington was left with permanent brain damage, unable to talk or walk.  Everyone assumed that the project would have to be scrapped since the Roeblings were the only ones who knew how the bridge could be built.

Even though Washington was unable to move or talk, his mind was as sharp as ever, and he was determined to complete the bridge.  As he lay in his bed, he developed a code for communication.  All he could move was one finger, so he touched the arm of his wife with that finger, tapping out the code for her to instruct the engineers who were building the bridge.  For thirteen years, Washington tapped out his instructions with his finger – until the spectacular Brooklyn Bridge was finally completed.  It still stands today, carrying more than 150,000 cars and pedestrians every day.

Resourceful people can see the upside of down times.  They are not willing to give up just because things get complicated.  And here’s a news flash:  They are not all geniuses.  They just don’t accept defeat easily.

This story should inspire you for the times when you are out of duct tape and chewing gum.

Once upon a time, a young donkey asked his grandpa, “How do I grow up to be just like you?”

“Oh, that’s simple,” the elder donkey said.  “All you have to do is remember to shake it off and step up.”

“What does that mean?” asked the youngster.

The grandfather replied, “Let me tell you a story…  Once, when I was your age, I was out walking.  I wasn’t paying attention and fell deep into an old abandoned well.  I started braying and braying.  Finally an old farmer came by and saw me.  I was scared to death.  But then he left.  I stayed in that well all night.

“The next morning he came back with a whole group of people, and they looked down at me.  Then the old farmer said, ‘The well is abandoned and that donkey isn’t worth saving, so let’s get to work.’  And believe it or not, they started to shovel dirt into the well.  I was going to be buried alive!

“After the first shovels of dirt came down on me, I realized something.  Every time dirt landed on my back, I could shake it off and use it to step up a bit higher!  They kept shoveling, and I kept shaking the dirt off and stepping up.

“’Shake it off and step up… shake it off and step up…’  I kept repeating to myself for encouragement.  And it wasn’t long before I stepped out of the well, exhausted but triumphant.”

So no matter how difficult the situation . . .  no matter how bad things get . . . no matter how much dirt gets dumped on you, just remember – shake it off and step up.  You’ll be alright.


Mackay’s Moral:  When you’re out of resources, it’s time to get resourceful.

Don’t let success breed complacency

Looking back on his extraordinary career of 35 years, NASCAR driving legend Richard Petty noted that during his first 20 years of racing, he had an excellent record of winning.  For example, he won the Daytona 500 seven times!

However, in the late 1970s, his career went into a decline from which it never recovered.  Other racing teams had gone high-tech, refining their cars with ever-more sophisticated engineering, while the Petty team was complacent and set in its ways.

“We’d be winning steadily for 20 years and decided we wouldn’t change,” Petty said.

harveyBryceRichard Petty, one of the greatest drivers in racing history, ended his career without a win in his last eight years.

Lesson learned:  Resistance to change and complacency can defeat any person or organization, no matter how talented.

Success is sweet, but it can quickly sour if the ingredients aren’t fresh.  I’ve seen plenty of businesses, large and small, rest on their laurels only to be lulled into a coma.  On the one hand, it’s tempting to go along with the tried and true – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But that’s an adage that needs to be tested constantly.  Times change, tastes change, technology changes.  People change.  And aren’t we all dependent on people for our business?

“Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose,” said Bill Gates.  That’s why success can be a breeding ground for complacency.  People and organizations become content, satisfied and comfortable – too comfortable – in the way they do things.  In short, things are going well and they don’t think there is a need to change.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt said something similar:  “More people are ruined by victory, I imagine, than by defeat.”

Complacency is like a silent killer because it can happen to everyone.  It doesn’t matter how large or small the company or individual.  We have all battled complacency at some point.  The real trick is not to let it hang around for long.

“I often think we should have a Director of Corporate Insecurity because complacency is the Achilles heel of most companies,” said Sir John Bond, former chairman of HSBC Holdings.  “As my Chinese friends remind me, today you’re a cockerel (chicken), tomorrow you’re a feather duster.”

Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp., told a story about one of his company’s electronics facilities in Orlando, where “complacency started to infect one of our manufacturing processes.”

He said:  “Occasionally, parts were omitted from component kits prepared for assembly and inspection at another factory.  Each missing part disrupted the assembly process and frustrated the workers assembling the products.  I borrowed an idea from an automobile dealer in Dallas I had heard about.  The dealer received few complaints from customers because he gave them the home telephone numbers of the mechanics who worked on their cars.  I arranged for workers to include their names, work phone numbers, and self-addressed postcards in the kits they prepared.  Complaints dropped precipitously.”

All these examples describe corporate complacency.  But the problem also hits individuals.  In this job climate, sometimes it feels safer to stay put, even when your job or company isn’t meeting your goals or needs.  While security is a good thing, you also have to consider what it’s doing to your future.

Is your career on the right track?  Is it progressing as you planned?  If you’ve been in the same place for a while, think about these items:

  • Contentment.  The most important consideration when making career judgments is whether you’re happy.  Do you find your job satisfying?  Have you created a reasonable work/life balance?  If you feel good about going to work each day, you’ve probably found your niche.
  • Development.  Have you kept up your professional skills and credentials?  Does your position allow you the opportunity to grow and to capitalize on your strengths?  Being content isn’t sufficient reason to let your skills stagnate.  You should continue striving to enhance your marketability.
  • Environment.  Are you in a stable organization that will serve your needs well for the foreseeable future?  If your company is experiencing a dip in sales or market share, you should consider how those losses might affect your position in the coming months.

It’s fine to be comfortable.  It’s great to be content.  But when those translate to being complacent, it’s time to take stock – before your stock is worthless.


Mackay’s Moral:  When on the ladder of success, don’t step back to admire your work.

Failure isn’t fatal

In 1860 a thirty-eight-year old man was working as a handyman for his father, a leather merchant.  He kept books, drove wagons and handled hides for about $66 a month.  Prior to this menial job the man had failed as a soldier, a farmer and a real estate agent.  Most of the people who knew him had written him off as a failure.  Only eight years later he was President of the United States.  The man was Ulysses S. Grant.

Most of us are afraid of failing.  Admit it.  We all face fears and anxieties every day, and the only way to overcome them and succeed is to recognize them up front so we can confront them directly.  Examine your fears during the light of day.  Somehow they always seem worse at night and more difficult to face.

Ask yourself what might happen during the day that you’re afraid of – failure to complete a big project at work, for example, or rejection by someone.  Then think of how you could prevent that failure.  Be on the lookout for behaviors and thoughts that add to your fear.  Train yourself to change your patterns of action and thinking.  Finally, pay attention to what you learn about failure as you confront it.  Use the experience of facing and overcoming your fear to confront and defeat the obstacles you face every day.  Start looking at failure as an opportunity to avoid a future mistake.

HarveySuccessFailure can be one more step on your road to success.  You just have to turn it around in a positive direction.  It can strengthen your determination to overcome obstacles.  Failure can make you braver in the face of opposition.  It can help you learn what you need to do in order to succeed.  Failure can teach you to recognize your limitations and your strengths.  It can encourage you to change your strategy.

Though everyone faces setbacks in life, few of us should really call ourselves “losers.”  Part of success is dealing with, and ultimately overcoming, our failures.

Keep your confidence and follow this advice:

  • Change your perspective.  Don’t think of every unsuccessful attempt as a failure.  Almost no one succeeds at everything the first time.  Most of us attain our goals only through repeated effort.  Take the negativity out of failure by viewing it as a learning experience.  Do your best to learn everything you can about what happened and why.
  • Try new approaches.  Persistence is important, but repeating the same actions over and over again, hoping that this time you’ll succeed, probably won’t get you any closer to your objective.  Look at your previous unsuccessful efforts and decide what to change.  Keep making adjustments, using your experience as a guide.
  • Define the problem better.  Analyze the situation – what you want to achieve, what your strategy is, why it didn’t work and so on.  Ask yourself if you’re really viewing the problem correctly.  If you need money, for example, one option is to increase revenue – but you could also try cutting expenses.  Think about what you’re really trying to do.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.  You may have an idealized vision of what success will look and feel like.  Though that can be motivational, it may not be realistic.  Succeeding at one goal won’t eliminate all your problems.  Be clear on what will satisfy your objectives, and don’t dwell on superficial details.
  • Don’t label yourself.  You may have failed, but you’re not a failure until you stop trying.  Think of yourself as someone still striving toward a goal, and you’ll be better able to hang in there for the long haul.
  • Pick your battles.  You’ve got to know when sticking to your position is going to be worth the time and energy, and when to back down in order to conserve your resources for the next confrontation.  You don’t have to succeed all the time to win in the end.
  • Don’t play it too safe.   In order to succeed, you’ve got to be willing to fail.  The people around you will catch on to your dislike of risk if you never take on a difficult project or an ambitious challenge.  Don’t shy away from hard work if you want your boss, or your teammates, to believe in you.

Mackay’s Moral:  Some of the best lessons we ever learned, we learned from our mistakes and failures.