George Washington’s famous "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior" were in fact not written by the teen-age Washington. The pamphlet that bears Washington’s name comes from a set of rules written by French Jesuits in the late 1500s, later translated into English during the 1640s. As a young man, Washington, who admired the rules, wanted to be a gentleman. That is, he wanted to be a leader of men. So, he needed to know how a gentleman behaves, and then to play--to become-- the part. And so he strove to follow these Rules of Civility--there were 110 of them--and in this we see the earliest glimmer of the type of leader Washington was to become.
Still, some may seem quite funny or odd to us or appear to be common sense:
• Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it
• Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others
• If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately
• Put not your meat to your Mouth with your Knife in your hand neither Spit forth the Stones of any fruit Pie upon a Dish nor Cast anything under the table.
• Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
Others are more serious and we can see in them the type of man, and leader, that Washington was to become:
• Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.
Indeed, one thing we really don't know about Washington is his sense of humor. There are fleeting glimpses of it in his correspondence, but just barely.
• Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.
We see this at work during Washington’s presidency, when he refused to believe the nasty things Thomas Jefferson told him about Alexander Hamilton. We also see this maxim at play in Washington’s initial disbelief of rumors involving Secretary of State Jefferson's quest to undermine his administration from within.
The Gentleman also is refined in manners, prudent in decision making, temperate in behavior. As general and then president, the core of Washington’s leadership style can be boiled down to his desire in particular to cultivate the virtues of prudence, hope, and fortitude. Prudence, after all, is the virtue of the Statesman. But with these, we must also include the classical virtue of justice, along with the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In the employment of these virtues--in their execution--we can discern Washington's leadership style.
Washington’s leadership style can be boiled down to three component parts:
1. Delegant. Washington was very conscious of his own shortcomings. He acknowledged and maybe even was self-conscious of his lack of formal education, especially when compared to men like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. He only read and spoke English. Yet for Washington this was a strength, because from it he learned the wisdom of delegating power. He was very willing to delegate power and to seek advice and opinions. However, in the end, he also had no qualms about making decisions and sticking with them, as he did when issuing his Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 against much advice and against the will of Congress and the American people. This leads us to the second component of his leadership style.
2. Deliberating but Decisive. Once he made a decision, he was single-minded. For example, in the Revolutionary War he never deviated from the simple strategy of keeping his army intact and alive until, with French help, he could deal a death blow to the British. While he lost more battles than he won, Washington kept the Continental Army alive long enough to win at Yorktown in 1781 with the help of France. When president, he would face a very different France but not a very different problem: how to keep the young country alive. Jefferson and Hamilton advised him very differently on this question...and so we come to the third element of Washington's leadership style.
3. Impartial Mediator and Referee. Washington desired to appear and actually be a statesman, standing above the fray of ideology and politics. He did this during the planning and construction of the Federal City, when he mediated disputes among the proprietors, surveyors, and architects. As most students of history know, he most famously played the referee between two great minds in his cabinet, Jefferson and Hamilton.
As a young man Washington admired the "Rules of Civility." He grew to be a temperate, prudent man who valued order. He wanted to be a gentleman, for he realized one could not be a true statesman without being a gentleman first.