Washington, Hamilton Provide Moral Integrity Lessons for Workplace Leaders

by Gordon Leidner, Author
What made our Founding Founders such great leaders?  Utilizing modern leadership theory, author Gordon Leidner reviews the Founders’ major accomplishments and offers answers to this question.


We recognize the Founding Fathers’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as the most revolutionary demonstration of leadership in American political history.  In his new book The Leadership Secrets of Hamilton: 7 Steps to Revolutionary Leadership from Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, Leidner not only demonstrates that the Founders were “transformational” leaders, but also provides readers with 21 techniques of the Founders that can be used by business leaders today.

One of these techniques was to illustrate moral integrity.

Exemplify Moral Integrity

During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington was given the most difficult task of all the Founding Fathers when the Continental Congress commissioned him as commander in chief of the Continental army on June 19, 1775. His duty was to fight the occupying armies of Great Britain—the most powerful military force on earth—and somehow win victory in the face of nearly impossible odds.

The British had stationed in the Colonies large, well-disciplined armies of professional soldiers led by battle-hardened officers. Washington, on the other hand, had much smaller, loosely organized forces that consisted of poorly trained militia and unreliable volunteers.

The British army had a well-organized system of logistics that could deliver ample supplies of ammunition and food, backed by a strong navy that could provide rapid transport. Washington had to count on whatever supplies could be conjured up by a powerless Congress, small businessmen, and local farmers. The British were well-provisioned in their immaculate red uniforms, well-stocked knapsacks, and fine boots. But in Washington’s army, uniforms and warm clothing were a scarce commodity, even among his field officers, and many of his men went barefoot.

The British officer corps was well-trained, highly disciplined, and proficient in the art of war. Most of Washington’s officer corps had no formal training, little regard for discipline, and had never led men in battle.

Why was George Washington chosen to be the leader of this “rabble-in-arms?”

There were several obvious reasons, such as the combat experience he had gained during the French and Indian War. Fighting on the side of the British in that conflict, he became a capable officer who demonstrated admirable leadership skills in battle. Washington was also an influential resident from the important colony of Virginia, and the wealthy owner of a large tobacco plantation. Although these were important reasons, the young nation needed more than this to put its fate in Washington’s hands.

More than any other leader of his time, George Washington was recognized as a person of unquestioned moral integrity. He was universally acknowledged as someone who was honest, trustworthy, forbearing, and of sound judgment. These character traits made him “the unanimous choice” of Congress for the critical role of commander in chief of the Continental army.

Although political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin would later give the new nation the inspiring vision defined in the Declaration of Independence, they discerned that for now, in time of war, it was the army that would decide America’s future. Knowing that Congress could provide the army little in the way of supplies or wages, they recognized it was of ultimate importance that the soldiers have a respected commander to follow. “The liberties of America depend upon him,” wrote John Adams, shortly after Washington’s appointment to command.

Although Washington was the primary example of a leader with moral integrity, he was by no means the only one. General Washington demanded excellence from his subordinates, and he promoted a young officer by the name of Alexander Hamilton to aide-de-camp.

Hamilton had demonstrated to Washington not only moral integrity, but also diplomacy, industry, and genius. As a key staff officer, Hamilton participated in strategic planning sessions, acted as Washington’s representative in important meetings, maintained critical communications with Congress, and signed important documents on Washington’s behalf. Washington’s trust of Hamilton would continue throughout the war and into his presidency.

Three Key Actions for Moral Integrity

  • Be Honest with Your Followers
  • Admit Your Own Weaknesses
  • Develop an Environment of Trust

Be Honest with Your Followers. Common sense will tell you that no one wants to work for someone who does not tell the truth. After all, if you can’t trust your boss, what’s the use of counting on that next raise the boss says you will receive? Can you count on that promised bonus or promotion? When the boss says you did a great job—is it sincere? Is your job secure? Lack of honesty in a leader quickly degenerates into a lack of trust, increased skepticism, and the loss of commitment on the part of followers.

Admit Your Own Weaknesses. Weak leaders often believe that admitting they are wrong is a sign of poor leadership. Don’t fall into that trap! If you refuse to admit your own weaknesses or mistakes, you will find yourself continually defending your poor choices and taking your followers down a path that is second best—or worse. To hide your mistakes, you may end up placing unfair blame on others in order to prove you were right.

Being afraid to admit your own weakness is actually a form of dishonesty, and dishonesty, once discovered, breeds contempt. If you are weak in a certain leadership or technical skill, chances are that your people already know it or will soon discover it. By admitting your weakness to subordinates, you are honoring them. They will realize that they have your confidence and recognize their opportunity to be of greater service to you. Opening up with your followers and asking them to help you increases trust and conveys a sense of personal worth to everyone.

Develop an Environment of Trust. Developing an environment of trust is an effective means of increasing collaboration and leadership skills in teams. To increase the environment of trust, you must start with yourself. Tell your team what your personal commitments (as a leader) are, and pledge to keep them. Ask your followers to hold you accountable. Challenge them to come to you with any concerns about your leadership or about the organization’s performance in respect to company business goals.

Do not blame or punish followers when they make mistakes, but encourage them to learn from them. Praise your followers when they identify problems, and help them to develop solutions.

Once your followers believe that you trust them, your behavior will bring out the best in your team members and your organization will perform at increasingly higher levels of trust and collaboration.

The above is an excerpt from The Leadership Secrets of Hamilton, which is available for purchase at Simple Truths, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Gordon Leidner is the author of numerous books and articles about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. A board member of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, he maintains the website GreatAmericanHistory.net, where he provides free educational material to students and educators on Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.