A Model for Your Career – George Washington

This is a guest post by Mark McNeilly. 

This is a guest post by Mark McNeilly. 


If you’re looking for a model of a successful career one could do worse than to look at that of George Washington. Washington’s accomplishments put him in a class that few others can match. He started as a surveyor in the Virginia wilderness at age sixteen, became a militia officer in his early twenties, and at age forty-three was unanimously elected to be the American army’s C-in-C. He then created that army essentially from scratch, developed it into a force capable of fighting the leading power of Europe and won independence for his country. He went on to become the first President of the United States by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. Yet he also had his failures (he was defeated many times). However, he learned from those mistakes and that, combined with his persistence, enabled him to be successful. What were some of the traits that Washington developed to enable his success?  

  • Integrity: At a very young age Washington focused on his character and integrity. This continued throughout his life. One example is that Washington refused to take a salary when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Army, instead only asking that his expenses be paid. He wanted to make sure that, no matter what challenges he faced, he always came out with his honor and integrity intact.
  • Courage: Washington not only had physical courage (in one battle during the French-Indian war Washington had several bullet holes in his jacket and two horses shot out from under him) but moral courage as well. For instance, near the the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington put down a near mutiny by disgruntled officers who were dissatisfied by their treatment by Congress.
  • Leadership: Washington had a unique leadership style. It was ahead of its time in that is was not hierarchical (though Washington did demand respect from his subordinates). Instead, whenever faced with a critical decision, Washington convened his officers in a council-of-war. He would then ask each for their assessment of the situation and recommendations. After discussion, Washington would make his decision and his team, having been involved in the debate, would have bought into Washington’s direction.
  • Networking: As Commander-in-Chief, Washington ensured support for the army by Congress and the States through networking. He would send the government officials progress reports, ask for their advice and compliment them on the troops from their state. And if they were nearby he would bring them out to visit the army and brief them on the situation.
  • Strategy: After suffering several defeats early in the Revolutionary War, Washington developed a new strategy. He would ensure that he would only take on the British army when he could deal them a blow without jeopardizing the existence of his army. He knew that, as long as the American army survived, so would the Revolution. This strategy enabled him to continue the war until help from France eventually arrived, which ultimately led to victory at Yorktown.
  • Perseverance: Despite numerous defeats, an army that was under-supplied and under-fed, and the strain of dealing with a contentious Congress, Washington persisted to eventual success. Faced with these difficulties, most men would likely give up, yet Washington kept working towards victory, achieving it after eight long years.
  • Vision: As a young surveyor in western Virginia, Washington saw the promise of the American frontier. This led him to envision a great country stretching across the continent. As America’s first President, Washington strove to strengthen the central government, balance regional interests and increase citizen’s loyalty to not just their state but the new nation as well.

While there was only one George Washington we can all learn from the example he set, using the traits above to advance our careers.

Mark McNeilly is the author of George Washington and the Art of Business: Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief (Oxford University Press) as well as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers. His website is The views he expresses are his alone and are not meant to represent those of any company or institution with which he is affiliated.  


Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (


About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning.