Here’s to George Washington and Independent Thinking

This Thursday is American Independence Day, so what better way to celebrate than to remember the man behind it all, George Washington?  (OK, I accept that taking the day off, drinking bourbon and letting off fireworks might be more fun, but in the context of a business blog, this is all I got).

It should go without saying that Washington was a pretty amazing guy.  But just to recap: he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army; the architect of the Constitution; the First President of the United States; and the only one to receive 100% of the electoral votes.  Put it this way: if LinkedIn had been around then (not the President played by Daniel Day-Lewis, sorry if this is getting confusing), he would almost certainly have picked up an endorsement or two.

So how did he rise to such high office?  Well, conventional wisdom has it that he succeeded through his remarkable honesty, firm principles and unimpeachable statesmanship.  All of which is true.  However, he also benefited greatly by gathering more talented people around him, even if he disagreed with them, and vice versa.  Most obviously, he drew on the extraordinary triumvirate of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton: all brighter than him and all with quite different points of view.  But perhaps even more tellingly, he was equally wise in his recruitment of his younger officers and deputies.

There’s a great story that sums up Washington’s recruitment strategy perfectly.  Apparently, whenever he was running the rule over a new aide, he would insist on having dinner with them.  As you’d expect, he would quiz them over their experience and probe them for their views on the important matters of the day.  But all the time, he would be looking for one thing: would they put salt on their food when it was brought to the table?!

It was an obscure test, but there was method in his apparent madness.  If they added salt before tasting the food, Washington would write them off as closed-minded: he wanted people who would judge each situation on its merits and not leap to lazy assumptions.

Now like a lot of stories about Washington, this one is probably apocryphal and deserves to be taken with a pinch of you-know-what.  But it’s still an interesting example of the number one rule in management: hire people who are better than you are and then encourage them to think for themselves.  That’s the real lesson of the aptly named Independence Day.