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Lessons in leadership from George Washington

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The view of George Washington's profile is often overlooked by visitors.

The view of George Washington’s profile is often overlooked by visitors.

Photo courtesy Bill Wagner

Today marks the anniversary of the British surrender to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, the effective end of military conflict in the American Revolution.

I am particularly fond of this victory not just because it marks a watershed in our history, but because it highlights three of Washington's most extraordinary characteristics as a leader. In the events leading up to and following Yorktown, we see in Washington a willingness to change a cherished strategy, the capacity to identify his own weaknesses and trust his team to compensate, and his vigilant pursuit of victory.

As 1781 began, the American army was in disarray. The revolutionary forces had been defeated in the south, Benedict Arnold had defected, and the troops in the north were threatening to disband if a feckless Congress did not pay them. Although French troops had arrived in New England under the leadership of Count Rochambeau, it looked as if stalemate or worse was all that the Americans could expect from their rebellion.

Washington harbored the hope that an assault on the British stronghold in New York City would be the end-game for the war. His early humiliating loss of New York City to Cornwallis and Howe still irked him, and he desperately savored a New York victory. Rochambeau thought the strategy futile. But rather than argue with the strong-willed Washington, he gave Washington the time to study the idea.

After weeks of reconnaissance and planning, Washington had to face of the fact that even with French troops, he could not defeat the British garrison in New York. So, despite his longing for personal vindication and his best-laid plans, Washington quickly changed his strategy. With Rochambeau's urging, he turned his gaze south to Lord Cornwallis's march through Virginia. Together they quickly identified an opportunity to use French naval support to trap Cornwallis.

The rapid mobilization of American and French forces from New England to Virginia in the late summer of 1781, especially given their penury, was one of the greatest logistical feats of the war. But Washington's decisiveness in executing his new strategy worked. And with French naval control of the Chesapeake by French admiral de Grasse, the Americans soon had the British army trapped at Yorktown.

The siege that followed required patient military engineering as much as bravado. Although Washington was in command, he recognized his own lack of expertise in military engineering. Instead of blustering forward to snatch his old enemy Cornwallis, Washington instead put his full trust into the hands of his French team members who had the engineering expertise to secure this victory.

The victory at Yorktown was complete and decisive. On October 19, more than 8,000 British troops formally surrendered. As news of the Yorktown victory spread, there was great celebration in America and a sense of resignation in Britain. But Washington did not celebrate. Having seen previous American victories turn into redoubled efforts by the British, Washington urged caution, preparation and vigilance. Although most others saw Yorktown as a tacit end to the war, Washington continued to do all in his power to keep American troops battle ready until the peace was formalized. By doing so, he may have deterred any British second thoughts.

Few leaders in history have commanded as much deserved respect as George Washington. As we remember his decisive victory at Yorktown today, we can also honor him for being willing to let good counsel guide his strategy, for the trust he put into the expertise of those who supported him, and his vigilant pursuit of final victory.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. e-mail: pedwards@desnews.com