A recent National Geographic Channel special demythologized George Washington - he owned and sold slaves, he had lifetime love relationships with two women (thank goodness, one of them was his wife, Martha), he was (heavens!) ambitious, and he was a mediocre general, relying principally on sneakiness. What the program actually demonstrated was Washington's incredible success as an organizational manager - a trait he shares with another American general, David Petraeus.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, November 22, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

From Washington to Petraeus: Managerial Genius in American Generals

WashingtonA recent National Geographic Channel special demythologized George Washington - he owned and sold slaves, he had lifetime love relationships with two women (thank goodness, one of them was his wife, Martha), he was (heavens!) ambitious, and he was a mediocre general, relying principally on sneakiness. What the program actually demonstrated was Washington's incredible success as an organizational manager - a trait he shares with another American general, David Petraeus.

For those of you who vaguely recall your high school history classes, Washington won exactly three battles during the seven-year-long Revolutionary War. On Christmas night 1776 he sneaked across the Delaware to defeat the English and their Hessian allies at Trenton. Several British armies then advanced on Washington's small, 1500-man army. Sneaking through frozen fields at night, Washington backtracked to Princeton, splitting the enemy forces and rallying his troops to defeat a larger British garrison there.

These two small battles were all the fighting Washington did for five years. But he had established that the Colonials could stand up to the British, which no one believed was possible. This led the French to back the Americans. More important, it convinced Americans they could defeat the strongest army in the world. Washington finally led a joint American and French expedition against Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1881. There he decisively defeated the British, who were waiting to be reinforced by sea, and ended the War.

So he didn't fight much, but enough. He didn't demonstrate great strategic skills (Washington was no Napoleon), but used streetwise moves (the Geographic special pointed out that Washington relied on his farmer's intuition to figure out a frost would allow him to escape from muddy Trenton). Mainly, Washington struggled to keep a miniscule, diverse, poorly trained army together until he wore the British down (sound familiar? - Ho Chi Minh studied Washington).

The Geographic special didn't delve into Washington's planning style, which was collaborative and deliberate. He outlined options and solicited reactions and proposals from his junior officers while withholding his own opinion - a model of modern organizational leadership. He then chose a course, and expected all to hew to it - Washington was not a great kidder or a forgiving man.

Washington was a leader. He was tireless and fearless. He was, of course, ambitious. But he never displayed his ambition in overt ways, instead always acting with a mind towards inspiring his troops and Americans at large. He relied on men more brilliant than he (like Alexander Hamilton). And thank God for his ambition, inspiration, and leadership, or else we'd be speaking British now!

PetraeusGeneral Petraeus is no Washington. But he's damn good at what he does. He will never lead the whole nation. I should add that I opposed the Iraq War and still do. But Petraeus' aw-shucks demeanor reminds me of that low profile affected by other managerial military and political geniuses like Washington and Eisenhower. Petraeus is an organizational planner extraordinaire, as demonstrated by his approach to pacifying Iraq. And his leadership and decision-making process closely resembles Washington's.

To quote James Taub in his New York Times review of Linda Robinson's "Tell Me How This Ends": "The 55-year-old general is a superachiever who took on all the toughest training assignments and came away with the medals, a perfectionist who demands as much from others as from himself and a deeply reflective figure - he has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton - who continually adapts to the lessons of experience . . . . which compelled him ‘to mount a sustained effort to understand the problem.'" Petraeus made the surge work in Iraq by using the additional soldiers not only to fight, but to pacify the country through community organizing.

Indeed, Petraeus' out-of-the-box, across-the-board strategizing has caused a crisis for psychologists. Before coming to his current command, Petraeus led a task force to rewrite the Army's counterinsurgency manual. In this job, he called on the best social planners, psychologists, and Middle East and other area specialists. By bringing to the table the kind of intellectual resources that the Bush Administration so studiously avoided, Patraeus worried many that he was co-opting psychology and the social sciences for nefarious purposes.

Leaving that concern aside - and I in no way excuse psychologists from ethical responsibility for the impact of their cooperation with the military (including coercing information from Guantanemo prisoners) - I prefer a military leader who is smart, confident, and organizationally savvy enough to call on such expertise. That's what exceptional commanders do.