Leadership Lessons from A Cold Bleak Hill

Not all leadership ideas come from theorized concepts found in current contemporary business and self-help literature. Leadership can be learned from history. Learning from others in history, who have led during trying and difficult times – when leadership is truly put to the test and demonstrated – can bring insight and provide concrete and practical concepts.

George Washington

George Washington is an excellent example. As commander-in-chief of the continental army, he struggled with a Congress that was both indecisive and undermining, a supply chain fraught with corruption, an army destitute, disease ridden and dying, and officers squabbling for rank and position. In a letter to Congress he described his army as occupying “…a cold bleak hill…”

Washington had to have the mind of what we would today call an entrepreneur. He had a vision of something few but he could see and no clear knowledge on how to realize that vision. He had faith and confidence that with the appropriate effort, discipline and commitment his vision could be realized. Washington was able to overcome nearly all the challenges he faced at Valley Forge, but the army itself was transformed by another person with an entrepreneurial mind.

Von Steuben

Baron Freidrich Von Steuben was not all he appeared to be. His credentials were largely manufactured by Benjamin Franklin, who saw in Von Steuben potential to be an asset to the continental army. Congress was infatuated by these credentials. Washington’s officers initially resented him. He was to them, just another European pretender, seeking fame and fortune with little experience and at the expense of those who had already earned their stripes in blood and sweat.

Begin with The End in Mind

Results set Von Steuben apart from his European peers seeking favor from Washington and Congress in this new America. Von Steuben was experienced in the military art of European war, and a pragmatist. After presenting Washington his “credentials”, and letters of recommendation from Congress and Benjamin Franklin, he told Washington he did not want to assume rank or position immediately. Rather, he would spend two weeks and evaluate the army and its current condition and propose of recommendations.


At the conclusion of his review, Von Steuben presented his findings and recommendations and made yet another proposal. He proposed that he execute the recommendations without rank or pay. If the army was, after Von Steuben’s efforts, sufficiently improved to Washington’s expectations, then he, Von Steuben, be awarded the rank of Major General.

Washington was delighted with the proposal. It was all upside with little or no risk to him. He accepted Von Steuben’s proposal, relieved this proposal took a significant amount of weight of his own shoulders

Stick to The Fundamentals

Von Steuben established sanitary discipline to mitigate the spread of disease, rampant throughout the camp at Valley Forge. Where Von Steuben excelled was instilling pride in the troops and officers through drill. Drill was a necessary skill to fight a war in the classical European style. It also taught interdependence and teamwork. He selected 100 men and officers (modern day company strength) from among the different units of the army at Valley Forge and began instructing them in drill.

Embrace Change

Von Steuben had a learning curve of his own. He found that unlike Europeans, Americans were not willing to obey orders for the sake of the order itself. Americans required an explanation as to why the order was necessary. Once they understood why, they were entirely committed to executing the order. After this rapport was established, his company of 100 eventually performed marvelously.

Results Require Ideal Behaviors

Von Steuben's Expectations of Others:
  1. Excellence in execution through daily practice
  2. Leaders participate
  3. Leaders ensure subordinates’ needs are met as much as possible
  4. Leaders develop careers through results
Von Steuben's Expectations of Himself:
  1. Lead by example
  2. Tasks / assignments are best completed when understood why they are important
  3. Humor is important in engaging others
  4. Be firm and decisive when appropriate

The results of these expectations, completely aligned with those of Washington, are well documented as history.

On Leadership

George Washington and Fredrich Von Steuben demonstrated excellent leadership. They also saw leadership as a character trait rather than a technique. Although they were both great leaders, they both suffered from flaws in human frailty. Great leaders are not perfect; they are human. It is the human side of their nature, aspiring to something great, which in difficult times allows leadership to rise within them.

This is even more important when one considers that we are of the same mettle. We too are human. To what level do we build leadership as a character trait, such that when called upon, we too may lead? This is the question we all must face, whether leaders by design or circumstance. It cannot be ignored.

How will you lead?

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