Did you ever wonder why our political leadership seems to be so … lacking? It might be because the importance of leadership has been dismissed by the very intellectual elites responsible for educating our youth. In the ’70s, our nation’s universities’ leaders were studied by scholars from those very institutions. They concluded, and it has been their guiding mantra the past 40 years, that leadership is principally “mythological.” They likened the role of an organization’s leader “to the driver of a skidding car.” They write that there is little a leader can do to influence organizational outcomes and whether he is convicted of manslaughter or receives a medal for heroism is largely outside of his control. This has been the prevailing view academically and in our social media politically for almost 40 years.
But firefighters know that certain among us have personalities that set them apart from those of us who are ordinary. We recognize that leaders are the people who spring back after a setback, who accept alterations with grace, and who view roadblocks as opportunities. We know there are those among us that, like a willow tree, can be blown to the ground and spring back almost instantaneously; they are the resilient among us.
Sadly, for the past 40 years, rather than digging into the character of those we have chosen to lead, we are enamored by quick jokes, laminated smiles, and the ability to vilify and ridicule the opposition. Character, if even considered, is often misunderstood; values are interpreted as rigidity; integrity as stubbornness; and resiliency as ostentatiousness. We know through experience that leadership matters; character matters; but, unfortunately, we also have come to expect leaders to be perfect.
Accordingly, we are surprised when we learn that our historical leaders, our ancestral heroes, made mistakes and then came back to greatness, that they were resilient. Resiliency was certainly the hallmark of one of our founding fathers, who fell way short of perfection in his early struggles for our nation. He was born the third son of a farmer, whose friends called him “Gus.” What most don’t know is that his character was formed early on through adversity and that he almost fell into obscurity because of his notorious blunders in the French and Indian War.
In 1735, Gus moved his family of seven children to the Virginia area to farm, and Gus did quite well. Unfortunately, Gus met an untimely death at the age of 49. With his dad gone, Gus’s third boy was forced to self-educate and would always complain “of struggling under a consciousness of a defective education.” He would continue to self-educate his entire life.
He had an opportunity to become a member of the British Navy, but his mother refused to allow him to go. This led him to try surveying, where he learned his skills as an outdoorsman. Despite his success as a surveyor, his desire and longing for a career in the military never went away. His older brother’s death opened a way for his military career. Following his brother’s death, the governor commissioned Gus’s boy to the rank of major, the first rank he ever held in the military. He got his commission because he was willing to undertake a suicide mission. The English in Virginia wanted to know what the French were up to in the West. London told the Virginia governor to send a warning to the French.
The trip presented few problems, and Gus’s boy came back with the information that the French had built forts in the Western territory. The Virginians, upset that the French had laid claim to their land, promoted him to lieutenant colonel and sent him back to inform the French that they must withdraw immediately.
Things on the second trip didn’t go as well. First, Gus’s boy led his troops into a much larger force of the French. He ordered his 40 men to attack under the cover of dark; 10 of his men were killed and the rest captured. Also, one of the men killed by Gus’s boy was a French diplomat. Gus’s boy was now surrounded by the French, who sent word that they would allow safe passage if Gus’s boy would only sign a statement that the situation was an honest mistake. He signed the document, which was written in French, which Gus’s boy couldn’t read. The document was an admission of guilt; signing it became an international incident. Kings and rulers across the world were talking about this idiot lieutenant colonel who had fired on a foreign power at night during a time of peace. Overnight, his name became a household word. He was considered a buffoon and an embarrassment. Gus’s boy resigned in shame and went home.
Still, in spite of his early mistakes, as the members of the Continental Congress were trying to pick a commander in chief, his name came up. At first, the Congress thought that General Charles Lee or General Horatio Gates should lead, but neither was born in America. So John Adams suggested Gus’s boy, George Washington, for the job.
The resilience of Washington’s character was founded in his unshakeable belief in divine providence. And he would need every bit of that resilience to get us through the American Revolution. That resilience would hold together the destitute army through the terrible winters of Valley Forge, that resilience resisted the plans to make Washington a king, and it resisted a plot by his own army to take over the government. His resilience made the constitutional convention credible; his resilience allowed him to sacrifice his desire for a quiet retirement to serve as the first president of the United States.
None of us may ever have to face the kind of challenges that George Washington had to face, however difficult the times on us. The character and resiliency of those we choose to follow will make a real difference for the fire service’s future. Unicorns are mythological; leadership is a powerful reality.