Earlier this summer I decided to re-visit some books I read years ago about the revolutionary era, and the Founding Fathers that led the charge for independence in the United States.
I believe they were extraordinary men (and some women) during an extraordinary time in world history that continues to offer us many lessons we still need to learn in the 21st century.
I started with a biography of George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and America’s first president.
What I re-learned in reading the book again was that during a critical time near the very end of the war with Great Britain, Washington faced a crisis.
Officers in his camp, including one of the army’s senior leaders, scheduled meetings that amounted to a discussion of mutiny.
Upon learning of the initiative, Washington was quick to respond. But, he did not react. Washington had developed tremendous self-discipline from a very early age (a few weeks ago in this space I wrote about the code of conduct he penned when he was 14 years old).
Washington issued an order canceling the meeting, and immediately scheduled one of his own for a few days later to directly address the issues of his officers.
In this meeting Washington was at his best inspiring his troops with a message that brought him, his officers, and soldiers together for the final push ending the war for independence.
But, his emotional officers and tired and hungry soldiers would not have listened had Washington reacted when he learned of the meeting to overthrow his command.
Reacting is an emotional, sometimes unreasonable act in the moment that puts others on the defensive. Responding is a more thoughtful, reasoned action that offers opportunities for engagement and positive resolution.
The best, most successful leaders are able to manage their emotions in the moments when others aren’t capable of the same, allowing them to come out on top when they need to.
Rudyard Kipling, the English poet, said it best in his early 20th Century poem titled, If.
The poem begins with the lines:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs, and blaming it on you,…
And ends with the last line of:
…you’ll be a man, my son!
If Kipling were alive today I’d ask him to change “man” in that last line to “leader,” and republish the poem to a whole new audience.