Leadership Lessons from 1776

We’ve all heard in history classes that knowing about the past is critical for improving the present and future. I find this is especially true when I reflect upon the leadership lessons that we can learn from the trying times of the American Revolution.

Upon revisiting Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough’s book 1776, the story of Nathanael Greene was particularly poignant. At age thirty-three, he became the youngest general officer in the Revolutionary Army, eventually becoming a Major General and George Washington’s most gifted and dependable leader. But Greene’s rise to greatness wasn’t an easy journey.

Nathanael Greene came from a large family; he was the third of eight sons who helped run the family forge. He had little schooling, and he’d also been injured in childhood which left him with a limp. To make matters worse, he suffered from asthma attacks. Needless to say, when the fledgling American army was first forming, leaders didn’t take much stalk in his potential—despite the fact he’d helped begin the Kentish Guards of Rhode Island.

Yet Nathanael Greene was determined to become a leader, and he wouldn’t be deterred by doubters and naysayers. Instead, he believed that the best quality for leadership was courage. So, he began reading—especially military books and other material that would increase his knowledge base. He also became a militia private, more willing to serve in some capacity than sit on the sidelines.

And, as they say, the rest is indeed history. Greene’s natural leadership abilities were soon recognized, and he climbed through the ranks. McCullough points out that this was due as much to his industrious spirit as to his giftedness.

We can learn many valuable lessons from Nathanael Greene. Let’s be courageous, despite what’s going on around us. Even if someone doubts our ability to lead, we need to keep moving ever-forward. When we don’t know something, we can do the research and get self-educated. And, finally, may we never be afraid to humble ourselves, roll up our sleeves, and do what needs to be done despite how “lowly” or seemingly unrewarding that job might look to those around us. Like the leaders from 1776, we’re writing our own history too—so what will this legacy look like?