Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Have you ever wondered about internal organization dynamics and why some groups of people (who aren't on the same team) are more successful than others? Why different “tribes” inside the organization seem to be at war with one another lowering performance in increasing politics? Why certain groups of people never seem to do anything? Or why its hard to move into the next level? Read on.
Organizations are a collection of small towns wrapped into a bigger city. Each small town is full of people from slackers to sherifs. While the people in the towns are different, the roles are similar. In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call these small towns tribes.
Tribes consist of groups of people from 20-150. (You can think of the test to identify whether someone is in your tribe as stopping to say “hello” and have a brief chat when you pass them on the street.) When the tribe approaches 150, a number that comes from Robin Dunbar's research that was popularized in The Tipping Point, it naturally splits into two.
Importantly, tribes are not (necessarily) teams. Yet tribes are how work gets done in organizations. They have the ability to render the latest corporate culture efforts from CEOs useless. “In companies,” Logan and his co-authors write, “tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work is going to get done, and of what quality.”
As you can imagine some tribes want to change the world while others are content to take a lot of coffee breaks. What compels one tribe of people to constantly evolve and move forward and another to stagnate (succumbing to the Red Queen Effect)? The leaders of the tribe.
More than others, tribal leaders influence the culture of their respective tribes. Ambitious leaders focus on growing, adapting, and upgrading the tribal culture to improve the tribes standing in the organization. If they are successful, the tribe members reward them with “cult like loyalty.” (This explains the phenomenon of promotions in a lot of organizations: When the tribe leader is promoted, a lot of the tribe members follow suit.)
Organizations are the sum of the tribes. Some are moving in the same direction while others veer in another. Some tribes propel while yet others add friction. Some tribes attract talent and others eject it. Performance is set not by the individual tribe leader but by the aggregation of them.
Tribal leadership is a process not an outcome and most people are blind to the dynamics of their tribes. Like all of our mental models, when you learn to see your company as a tribe, you can't unsee it. Things just click.
Logan and his co-authors simplify the dynamics of tribal leadership into 5 stages and they arrange the tools accordingly. Each stage has different “leverage points” to move to the next stage. “Each stage,” they write, “gets more done and has more fun than the one before it.”
Companies are never fully in one stage. They may have various tribes in Stage Two all the way to (hopefully) Stage Five. The more tribes you have operating at higher levels the better the company's performance, at least in theory.
Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with the goal being stability at Stage Four, and on occasion leaps to Stage Five.
The leverage points to move from Stage Two to Stage Three is not the same as those you need at Stage Three to move to Stage Four. (A lot of business and self-help books fail to realize this point. Perspective advice is more contextual than people realize.)
Let's look at the Five Stages before looking at the leverage points.
Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors likely this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.
Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn't suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they've seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.
Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I'm great (and you're not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don't have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.
Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I'm great (Stage Three) to we're great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person's sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn't take, the group rejects these people.
Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five's T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.
“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.
For a person at Stage One:
The success indicators here are:
For a person at Stage Two:
The success indicators here are:
For a person at Stage Three:
The success indicators here are:
For a Person at Stage Four:
Success indicators here are:
Tribal Leadership is a fascinating book that goes on to offer more strategies for leading others (and ourselves) through the stages. In our learning community we dive into some of the strategies the book offers for growing your network.
“I am certain in the belief that the average man who scrupulously follows this course of action is bound to win great success.”
George Marshall must be one of, if not the most under appreciated leaders in American history, and certainly of the 20th century.
Not only was he the military genius in charge of the US Army during World War II and the most directly responsible for its success, he was considered the primary leader of the Allied War effort by every major Allied leader. Roosevelt found him indispensable as his Army Commander, Winston Churchill called him the “true architect of victory” in the War, and even Stalin claimed he'd personally trust his life to Marshall. General and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower was his disciple.
It was Marshall who, from a standing start of a few hundred thousand soldiers, raised an army of millions and oversaw the major operations that would lead to the liberation of Europe. (Brilliantly recounted by Rick Atkinson in his three volume series.)
Churchill put Marshall's best qualities — his leadership in the worst of times — on display when he wrote:
There are few men whose qualities of mind and character have impressed me so deeply as those of General Marshall … He is a great American, but he is far more than that … He has always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement and disillusion. Succeeding generations must not be allowed to forget his achievements and his example.
Sadly, outside of military circles, that example does seem a bit forgotten.
Marshall is now mostly known for his genius Marshall Plan, which sought to re-build Europe (including Germany) in the aftermath of the war. But he was much more than that.
Before World War II, Marshall had a long and distinguished military career, including as the primary aide to General John J. Pershing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. And during this time, Marshall wrote a letter that perfectly exemplifies the qualities of a great leader. It would go on to be included in his posthumously published World War I memoir, Memoirs of My Services in the World War, 1917-1918.
Here, Marshall lays out the four qualities required to be a successful leader in a war situation.
What strikes us most about them is that they are neither complicated nor available to a select few nor specific to war at all. They are simply hard. And if Marshall's life is a testament to anything, it's that the ability to do hard things at the right time is the essence of a great leader.
November 5, 1920
General John S. Mallory
15 University Place
My Dear General Mallory,
Last summer during one of our delightful rides I commented on the advice I would give a young officer going to war, based on my observation of what had constituted the success of the outstanding figures in the American Expeditionary Forces, and you asked me to write out what I had said. A discussion with Fox Conner this morning reminded me of my promise to do this, so here it is.
To be a highly successful leader in war four things are essential, assuming that you possess good common sense, have studied your profession and are physically strong.
When conditions are difficult, the command is depressed and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic.
When evening comes and all are exhausted, hungry and possibly dispirited, particularly in unfavorable weather at the end of a march or in battle, you must put aside any thought of personal fatigue and display marked energy in looking after the comfort of your organization, inspecting your lines and preparing for tomorrow.
Make a point of extreme loyalty, in thought and deed, to your chiefs personally; and in your efforts to carry out their plans or policies, the less you approve the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.
The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude. Never ask for the relief of your unit and never hesitate to attack.
I am certain in the belief that the average man who scrupulously follows this course of action is bound to win great success. Few seemed equal to it in this war, but I believe this was due to their failure to realize the importance of so governing their course.
George C. Marshall
Major, General Staff
* * *
If you're interested in learning about Marshall, there are several good books written about him including Leonard Mosley's biography, his own WWI memoirs in which this letter is printed, and Winston Groom's book about Marshall, Patton, and MacArthur and the winning of the war.
The author Marshall Goldsmith has a gift for taking classic theories and adding to them, or slightly modifying them, to construct something new and interesting.
A good example of this is what he does with Situational Leadership in the book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be.
He takes the original ideas postulated by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in their theory of Situational Leadership and adds an interesting spin, allowing us to use some of the insights more personally.
Situational leadership is the idea that one needs to constantly adapt their leadership style to the ever changing environment in which they operate.
If a specific style works in one situation with one particular individual, that doesn’t mean we should adopt that style for all people and situations. However, in part because success is reinforced, that is generally what we do.
Hersey and Blanchard’s premise is that leaders need to adapt their style to fit the performance readiness of their followers. Readiness not only varies by person, it also varies by task. Followers have different levels of motivation and ability for different tasks.
Leaders need to acknowledge that situations change along with the readiness of their staff. To be most effective, different people require different types of leadership.
Hersey and Blanchard outlined four distinct styles:
Directing is for employees requiring a lot of specific guidance to complete the task. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s what I’d like you to do, step by step. And here’s when I need it done.’ It’s primarily a one-way conversation, with little input from the employee.
Coaching is for employees who need more than average guidance to complete the task, but with above-average amounts of two-way dialogue. Coaching is for people who both want and need to learn. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s what I’d like you to do,’ and then ask for input: ‘What do you think, Chris?’
Supporting is for employees with the skills to complete the task but who may lack the confidence to do it on their own. This style features below-average amounts of direction. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s the task, How do you think is should be done? Let’s talk about it. How can I help you on this one?’
Delegating is for employees who score high on motivation, ability, and confidence. They know what to do, how to do it, and can do it on their own. The leader might say, ‘Chris, here’s the assignment. You have a great track record. If I can help, just ask. If not, you’re on your own.’
The four styles are quite different. The idea is to try and measure the need of your employee and choose the style that best fits them at that particular moment in time. The measuring process needs to happen continually for you to be most effective. The style which best helps Chris in situation X might not be the the one that will help him in situation Y.
Now for the twist.
Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership is a perfect analogue to a hidden dynamic that exists within us when we attempt to change our behavior. It’s the same dynamic whether you call it leader and follower, planner and doer, or manager and employee. The terms are interchangeable as far as I’m concerned.
As we go through life making plans to be a better friend, partner, worker, athlete, parent, son, or daughter, inside each of us are two separate personas. There’s the leader/planner/manager who plans to change his or her ways. And there’s the follower/doer/employee who must execute the plan.
Goldsmith argues that whether you are trying to lead other people or lead yourself, the obstacles are very much the same. You still have to deal with all the variables in the environment: temptations pushing you away from your objective, motivation issues, and self-discipline issues. One result is that we tend to be superior planners but inferior doers. We talk a good game.
If you take a moment to think of a recent plan that you devised but never executed, you’ll realize that Goldsmith is onto something here. Would a successful leader come up with a beautiful plan, throw it out to their employees, and then walk away and hope for the best? No.
To improve the odds of success, a leader would check in. They would look for obstacles to remove. They would want feedback on progression. They would be an active part of implementing the plan. We know this, yet we don't do it in our own work and lives. We don't manage execution.
What if the planner in each of us, like an effective leader with his or her subordinates, could size up the situation at any point during the day and adopt the appropriate management style for the doer in us? It’s a simple two-step: measure the need, choose the style.
It gives you such a new perspective to think of your goals in this way. It allows you to step back from the situation and clearly see where you are getting off course. Just step into execution mode and out of planning mode, as any good hands-on leader would do.
We don't adequately weigh many of your past experiences/failures. This may be a willful denial of why you have failed at a task in the past or it could simply be that you’ve never taken the time for reflection.
It’s not just environmental intrusions and unpredicted events that upset our plans. It’s also our willful discounting of past experience. We make plans that are wholly contradicted by our previous actions.
The planner in us is convinced this time it will be different. Yet if you don't understand why you failed, you're doomed to repeat folly. Learning from our mistakes is key to increasing the odds to achieve our personal and professional goals.
Goldsmith's book is filled with insightful ideas. His decades of experience in coaching leaders is evident throughout the pages; both in the way he highlights his ideas with meaningful examples and the way he explains the evolution in his own thinking. You will find yourself identifying with his client’s issues and walking through the solutions, endowing you with practical tools to help you change your own behavior, whatever your own “triggers” might be.
We've written before about the legendary businessman Ken Iverson, the former CEO of Nucor Steel, who took it from a tiny steel operation to a true steel powerhouse in his own lifetime.
To recap, in Iverson's tenure, Nucor:
And so on. He was incredible.
His short business memoir, Plain Talk, describes a much different kind of company than most; one where a culture of teamwork and group winning trumped personal fiefdom. He also got the incentives right. Boy did it ever work.
Turns out Iverson had some thoughts on business education as well.
What are we really missing?
In his recommended curriculum, Iverson highlights just how different his thoughts are: No classes on grand strategy (Henry Singleton would agree), or sales, or marketing, or financial structuring. (Not that those can't be useful. Just not enough.)
His idea? Teach aspiring managers how to truly interact with, understand, and lead the people who work for them by forcing young MBAs to take on an “internship” as a leader similar to the way doctors take up residence before being given the full leash.
In the epilogue to Plain Talk, Iverson calls this the Cure for the Common MBA.
Here are some of the subjects that might form the core of first-year MBA curricula:
Earning Employees' Trust and Loyalty
Far too many managers have no clue how their employees feel or even what their people's work lives are like, day to day. Employees pick up on this lack of insight in a heartbeat, and that realization taints everything their managers say to them from that point forward. Conversely, employees clearly give the benefit of the doubt to managers whom they see as understanding “what's really going on” and “what we're really up against.” That's only natural.
I'd suggest, then, that every MBA candidate be required to spend at least a few weeks engaged in manual, clerical, and/or other forms of non-management labor.
Further, they should be required to keep a journal of their experiences—the kinds of problems they encounter, their frustrations, their successes, and so forth. They will find that what seems a small thing to them as managers often takes on great significance to them as employees.
Developing managers should also contemplate the implicit and explicit commitments they will make to the people who work for them. They should understand their obligations under those commitments as well as the limitations of those obligations. And they should grasp the consequences of failing to be consistently trustworthy.
Listening is among the scarcest of all human skills, in and out of management. Listening requires concentration, skill, patience, and a lot of practice. But such practice is a very sound investment of the developing manager's time.
Real listening enables managers not only to hear what people say to them, but to sense what may be behind what is said (i.e., employees' emotions, assumptions, biases).
Better still, their reputation for competent listening will encourage others to bring them information. Listening proficiency is an immense advantage to any manager. No MBA should be sent forth into the business world without it.
The Hazards of Hierarchical Power
Inexperienced managers tend to lean heavily on formal, hierarchical sources of authority. This is understandable. They have not yet had the opportunity to develop other forms of authority such as experience, expertise, and seniority.
The problem is, young managers don't often comprehend the hazards of hierarchical power. They do not understand that, by setting themselves above and apart from their employees, they may actually be digging themselves into a hole. I think it is only fair, then, that we warn inexperienced managers of the hazards of hierarchical power.
Principles of Equitable Treatment
Few managers receive much in the way of explicit instruction in the principles of equitable treatment of employees, either in business school or in the course of management development. All too often, managers fill that vacuum with their own self serving precepts of what is equitable. A few common- sense principles, clearly stated and strongly advocated in the business schools, could make the business world a better, more equitable place for employees and managers alike.
The notion of an internship for managers has a precedent in medical education, of course. Doctors intern for a number of years before they are turned loose on the world. There ought to be a comparable transitional step in completing the requirements for an MBA. Further, that transition should focus on providing the management candidate hands-on experience. Any MBA who ventures into business with the intent of managing people should first develop his or her skills under the watchful guidance of an experienced manager.
The fact is, few business school professors have ever managed anything, and their lack of hands-on experience shows in their students. Medical school faculties, in contrast, are comprised of the best and most respected practicing physicians.
MBA candidates should preferably complete their internships within relatively small, self-contained operations, so they can perceive the operation in its entirety and grasp the overall dynamics of a business.
People throughout the corporate world lament that other parts of their company don't understand them or what they do. They're usually right. It takes an extraordinary individual to understand aspects of a business to which he or she has never been exposed. We are expecting far too many managers to be extraordinary.
“Geniuses are dangerous.”
— James March
How many organizations would deny that they want more creativity, more genius, and more divergent thinking among their constituents? The great genius leaders of the world are fawned over breathlessly and a great amount of lip service is given to innovation; given the choice between “mediocrity” and “innovation,” we all choose innovation hands-down.
So why do we act the opposite way?
Stanford's James March might have some insight. His book On Leadership (see our earlier notes here) is a collection of insights derived mostly from the study of great literature, from Don Quixote to Saint Joan to War & Peace. In March's estimation, we can learn more about human nature (of which leadership is merely a subset) from studying literature than we can from studying leadership literature.
March discusses the nature of divergent thinking and “genius” in a way that seems to reflect true reality. We don't seek to cultivate genius, especially in a mature organization, because we're more afraid of the risks than appreciative of the benefits. A classic case of loss aversion. Tolerating genius means tolerating a certain amount of disruption; the upside of genius sounds pretty good until we start understanding its dark side:
Most original ideas are bad ones. Those that are good, moreover, are only seen as such after a long learning period; they rarely are impressive when first tried out. As a result, an organization is likely to discourage both experimentation with deviant ideas and the people who come up with them, thereby depriving itself, in the name of efficient operation, of its main source of innovation.
Geniuses are dangerous. Othello's instinctive action makes him commit an appalling crime, the fine sentiments of Pierre Bezukhov bring little comfort to the Russian peasants, and Don Quixote treats innocent people badly over and over again. A genius combines the characteristics that produce resounding failures (stubbornness, lack of discipline, ignorance), a few ingredients of success (elements of intelligence, a capacity to put mistakes behind him or her, unquenchable motivation), and exceptional good luck. Genius therefore only appears as a sub-product of a great tolerance for heresy and apparent craziness, which is often the result of particular circumstances (over-abundant resources, managerial ideology, promotional systems) rather than deliberate intention. “Intelligent” organizations will therefore try to create an environment that allows genius to flourish by accepting the risks of inefficiency or crushing failures…within the limits of the risks that they can afford to take.
We've bolded an important component: Exceptional good luck. The kind of genius that rarely surfaces but we desperately pursue needs great luck to make an impact. Truthfully, genius is always recognized in hindsight, with the benefit of positive results in mind. We “cherrypick” the good results of divergent thinkers, but forget that we use the results to decide who's a genius and who isn't. Thus, tolerating divergent, genius-level thinking requires an ability to tolerate failure, loss, and change if it's to be applied prospectively.
Sounds easy enough, in theory. But as Daniel Kahneman and Charlie Munger have so brilliantly pointed out, we become very risk averse when we possess anything, including success; we feel loss more acutely than gain, and we seek to keep the status quo intact. (And it's probably good that we do, on average.)
Compounding the problem, when we do recognize and promote genius, some of our exalting is likely to be based on false confidence, almost by definition:
Individuals who are frequently promoted because they have been successful will have confidence in their own abilities to beat the odds. Since in a selective, and therefore increasingly homogenous, management group the differences in performance that are observed are likely to be more often due to chance events than to any particular individual capacity, the confidence is likely to be misplaced. Thus, the process of selecting on performance results in exaggerated self-confidence and exaggerated risk-taking.
Let's use a current example: Elon Musk. Elon is (justifiably) recognized as a modern genius, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Yet as Ashlee Vance makes clear in his biography, Musk teetered on the brink several times. It's a near miracle that his businesses have survived (and thrived) to where they're at today. The press would read much differently if SpaceX or Tesla had gone under — he might be considered a brilliant but fatally flawed eccentric rather than a genius. Luck played a fair part in that outcome (which is not to take away from Musk's incredible work).
Getting back to organizations, the failure to appropriately tolerate genius is also a problem of homeostasis: The tendency of systems to “stay in place” and avoid disruption of strongly formed past habits. Would an Elon Musk be able to rise in a homeostatic organization? It generally does not happen.
James March has a solution, though, and it's one we've heard echoed by other thinkers like Nassim Taleb and seems to be used fairly well in some modern technology organizations. As with most organizational solutions, it requires realigning incentives, which is the job of a strong and selfless leader.
An analogy of the hare and the tortoise illustrates the solution:
Although one particular hare (who runs fast but sleeps too long) has every chance or being beaten by one particular tortoise, an army of hares in competition with an army of tortoises will almost certainly result in one of the hares crossing the finish line first. The choices of an organization therefore depend on the respective importance that it attaches to its mean performance (in which case it should recruit tortoises) and the achievement of a few dazzling successes (an army of hares, which is inefficient as a whole, but contains some outstanding individuals.)
In a simple model, a tortoise advances with a constant speed of 1 mile/hour while a hare runs at 5 miles/hour, but in each given 5-minute period a hare has a 90 percent chance of sleeping rather than running. A tortoise will cover the mile of the test in one hour exactly and a hare will have only about an 11 percent chance of arriving faster (the probability that he will be awake for at least three of the 5-minute periods.) If there is a race between the tortoise and one hare, the probability that the hare will win is only 0.11. However, if there are 100 tortoises and 100 hares in the race, the probability that at least one hare will arrive before any tortoise (and thus the race will be won by a hare) is 1– ((0.89)^100), or greater than 0.9999.
The analogy holds up well in the business world. Any one young, aggressive “hare” is unlikely to beat the lumbering “tortoise” that reigns king, but put 100 hares out against 100 tortoises and the result is much different.
This means that any organization must conduct itself in such a way that hares have a chance to succeed internally. It means becoming open to divergence and allowing erratic genius to rise, while keeping the costs of failure manageable. It means having the courage to create an “army of hares” inside of your own organization rather than letting tortoises have their way, as they will if given the opportunity.
For a small young organization, the cost of failure isn't all that high, comparatively speaking — you can't fall far off a pancake. So hares tend to get a lot more leash. But for a large organization, the cost of failure tends to increase to such a pain point that it stops becoming tolerated! At this point, real innovation ceases.
But, if we have the will and ability to create small teams and projects with “hare-like” qualities, in ways that allow the “talent + luck” equation to surface truly better and different work, necessarily tolerating (and encouraging) failure and disruption, then we might have a shot at overcoming homeostasis in the same way that a specific combination of engineering and fuel allow rockets to overcome the equally strong force of gravity.
Washington was a practical reader. He clearly valued useful knowledge that made many of his tasks easier. He was and still is the quintessential American success story because he applied his mind to achieving success. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and his reading is an applied demonstration of it.
Our first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, is not known as an intellectual, the way Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of his other Revolutionary counterparts were. Washington had little formal education — he was not a university man and he did not occupy the intellectual circles when was young. He didn't hope to make any contribution to political philosophy or the scientific understanding.
Washington grew up in Virginia into a landowning family, and his education didn't continue beyond the equivalent of elementary school. He developed a trade — surveying — and would eventually inherit his family's land and become a farmer and plantation owner. Washington couldn't speak or read any language but English, living in a time when it was considered necessary and desirable to know French and Latin, at a minimum. (Ben Franklin learned English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, French, and German.) Unlike others we've written about before, Washington wasn't very bookish.
And yet, this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading. Even a man with little interest in high-brow intellect, a man with very little time to spare, felt that sitting on his ass with a book was a useful thing indeed. He was a lifelong learner.
As judged by the library he left behind, his diaries, and the investigations into his life, Washington did not carry much interest in theoretical or classical reading or learning. It seems unlikely that he read for pleasure. But Washington used reading as a means to an end — he wanted to know how to farm better, how to lead an army, how to lead a country, how to conduct himself civilly. There wasn't any other way but to read and combine it with his direct experience.
Says Harrison in her book:
Washington was a practical reader … While the purpose of this book is not to remake Washington's image into a sort of closeted scholar, it does argue that reading was a key component behind Washington's success. The real contribution that this volume makes is that it takes one step closer to understanding how Washington's mind worked. While his self-directed reading was not anywhere near that of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Washington outshone them all by combining the knowledge he gained from his reading with his natural talent for leadership into a masterful performance.
Washington's lack of education and culture certainly bothered him as a youngster. He was ambitious — he wanted to serve as a high-level British military officer and operate in government. He wanted to be a somebody. But he knew his formal education was going to be lacking, and he knew it wouldn't all happen by accident. So he set out to do some of the hard work.
In a story that eventually became well-known, Washington first spent time as a teenager copying over a French manual for conducting yourself in high circles:
As his younger brothers Samuel and John Augustine still lay sleeping nearby and the first of the sun's rays stretched through the neatly curtained windows and across the small table, the future father of his country busily copied word for word a translation of an old guidebook for princely behavior that a French Jesuit priest wrote called The Rules of Civility.
Such a project was no small undertaking for the boy, but little by little he was determined to press on to the end; so he kept scratching at the paper with his quill, careful to keep his ink-stained fingers off the paper. By the time he was finished, young Washington's manuscript consisted of 110 rules for how to properly conduct himself as a respectable member of society. He took pride in his work, for he would rely on these maxims to guide him throughout a long career in the public light.
This tells you a lot of Washington: He was a climber, he had discipline, and he could apply himself when needed. Even in the 18th century, not too many wealthy southern teenagers would have taken on that kind of task.
Learning the rules of civilized social behavior in this way, Washington started a pattern he'd carry on his entire life: Gaining knowledge from books that he couldn't get through experience, or that he needed before he had the right experience. He did it again when he was put in charge of the Virginia Regiment, the first dedicated military unit in the colonies.
Washington hoped that leading this ragtag group of frontier soldiers against the French and the Natives would eventually lead to his becoming a full British military officer (which never happened). And although he was not actually part of the British military, as with his study of the Rules of Civility Washington took it upon himself to read the most influential book in British military circles, and instructed his officers to study it with him:
With specific regard to training, Washington was responsible for training not only raw recruits but also officers. Washington pushed his officers to study, particularly the latest in British military texts such as Humphrey Bland's A Treatise on Military Discipline. Washington wrote that “having no opportunity to improve from example, let us read”; for he recognized that it was not possible for an ambitious officer to obtain the requisite expertise “without application, nor any merit or applause to be achieved without certain knowledge thereof.”
Bland's Treatise was the fundamental textbook for all British officers. Known throughout the army as “the bible,” the 360-page manual spelled out everything a new officer needed to know about how to form and operate a regiment both in garrison and in the field. Bland outlined what an officer's duties were and what officers could reasonably expect from their subordinates.
Washington didn't stop his self education upon completion of his duties as a frontier officer — he just changed course:
He therefore turned his attention to doing his duty to his country, Virginia, and shifted his focus to becoming a leader in that provincial society, which did actually appreciate his achievements…Washington abandoned his study of the military arts that he had begun some four years earlier, for that reading no longer served a practical purpose for him. He instead devoted his energies in the coming years to increasing his wealth and status in Virginia society.
To successfully mix in the best social circles, Washington had to learn more about the science of agriculture, history, politics, and religion, for he had to balance being a planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a parish vestryman. After he returned to Mount Vernon and began assembling a library, those subjects that had the practical purpose of advancing his social stature dominated his burgeoning collection.
Washington took it upon himself to delve deeply into agriculture, acquiring scores of books on how to improve the productivity of his farms and manage the soil more effectively. He read religious tracts to understand the mood of the people around him, and history books to understand the history of English people.
It's important to note what Washington didn't do. He didn't try to achieve a classical education on his own. Some of his contemporaries were educated in England and became legal scholars, classicists, and composers of belles lettres. They wanted the mind of a European intellectual.
Washington didn't do this — he wanted to learn things he could use, and given a limited amount of time, focused his attention where it was most profitable to him. (An opportunity cost problem which we hit on in our How to Read a Book course earlier this year.)
Having made his mental break with his Englishness after Lord Loudon harshly dealt him a very personal affront, Washington in that key moment was forced to confront his academic shortcomings. This realization, when coupled with his extreme sensitivity to criticism, drove Washington intellectually inward and toward the subjects that he felt most comfortable with and that, more important, could meet his immediate needs at the time. He was fortunate to have already made his public reputation in Virginia based on his natural propensities for physical bravery and on his leadership experience. Learning to read Latin or becoming an amateur scientist would not sustain that hard-won reputation in the planter-dominated high society; earning money and being a dedicated public servant would. Consequently, Washington focused his reading and intellectual pursuits accordingly, and reading remained an intensely private activity. For example, when in residence at Mount Vernon, he spent on average two hours in the morning and all afternoon alone in his library.
Washington would keep these habits the rest of his life, although during the Revolution and his presidency, he had a lot less time to devote to reading than at Mount Vernon. But he still did it, even in the midst of the great upheaval he led against the British:
With these military treatises and drill manuals that he acquired during the first two years of the Revolution, we see Washington applying the same diligent study method he had used previously with Duhamel's Practical Treatise of Husbandry when he sought to make his plantations profitable. In other words, he read these military books for the sake of immediate practical problem solving. There is nothing philosophical or reflective about them. They are tactical field manuals, not massive theoretical tomes on the art of command as it evolved over the centuries.
This is not to recommend avoiding such reflective, theoretical tomes, if such reading interests you. But Washington does provide a good example to those who don't take an inherent pleasure in deep reflection. The process of reading can be intensely practical as well as enjoyable for its own sake. Never think that reading is a mere luxury. Even the busiest man of the 18th century, who did not enjoy reading as an end itself, felt a duty to allocate his time to the written word. It was simply that important.
Still Interested? Check out the rest of Adrienne Harrison's A Powerful Mind, or for a better and more thorough treatment, try the wonderful biography written by Ron Chernow, now the standard and most modern bio of the fascinating GW.