What George Washington Could Teach Higher Ed

I’m currently attempting to read a biography of each of the U.S. presidents in order; it’s a personal project that appeals to both my love of history and my linear, completist nature. And I figured perhaps these leaders of the free world might have some lessons to teach us about higher education, technology, or both. Plus, if car dealerships can celebrate Presidents’ Day for the entire month of February, so can I.

book cover of Washington: A LifeFour Things George Washington Could Teach Higher Ed

from Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life

1. Leaders listen. Washington’s entire management style was founded on a slow, deliberate decision-making process with input from as many experts and constituencies as possible. Unlike the British generals, who chose their staffs and fellow officers based on family standing, Washington chose self-made men like Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton as his advisers. These men were empowered to speak their minds to the Great Man, and he was open to persuasion, changing his mind when the weight of opinion was against him. In higher ed, we often stick with our own peeps — in Admissions, in Student Affairs, in Communications, in IT — because it’s certainly easier. But without listening for the big picture, as messy and uncomfortable as it can be, how can we make decisions that serve our students and faculty?

2. Leaders lead. After receiving as many opinions as possible — after taking his time and weighing all the arguments — Washington would make a decision and confidently stick to it, inspiring and focusing those around him to the task at hand. From the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse to Alexander Hamilton’s first bank bill, Washington supported his subordinates against swirling controversy and the buck stopped with him. And though he failed to take a lead in ending slavery, he did make the decision to free his slaves in his will — something that none of the other slave-owning founding fathers did.┬áIn higher education, the focus on consensus and process can make it seem as if no one is in charge, that no one is accountable. At the end of the day, someone’s gotta make a decision.

3. The non-traditional student is usually the smartest person in the room. Alone among the founding fathers, Washington had not attended college. He felt his lack of education keenly. In early writings, he adopted a highfalutin style that he thought sounded more “educated.” In gatherings, he tended to just stay quiet while orators like John Adams or Richard Henry Lee took the floor. Later in his career, Washington found the fact that people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison underestimated him useful. Washington was a life-long learner. One of the great advantages to working in higher ed is that you are surrounded by an organizational culture that values learning. Why not take advantage of that every day?

4. Leading is hard. Finally, over and over again, Washington lifted the weight of the country on his shoulders, at huge personal sacrifice: commander in chief of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, president of the United States — twice. He didn’t want any of these positions, but he also knew that if he did not take up the challenge, the things he wanted to see happen for his country would not happen. It’s not easy, but if you aren’t going to push and push and champion your own goals or vision, who will?


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