Rules of Leadership


Rik Chomko


I like to read and I try to vary my reading between fiction and non-fiction. For the non-fiction components, I find that more and more I’m turning to biographies for two reasons:

  1. It gives me a much better understanding of what was going on historically. When I took history in high school and college, the material was so decoupled from the personal element of what was going on that it was hard to internalize and understand it.
  2. You learn about the people who did amazing thing in history, not nations or armies or companies. Often times its against great odds that the subjects of the biographies persevered in what they endeavored to do. In fact, in many cases their situations were so tenuous that were it not for some special quality of theirs, they would likely never have been memorialized for the great things they did and instead be relegated to barely a mention in a history book. Whether it was passion, leadership, intelligence, work ethic, or a combination of these qualities and more, they had that something that elevated them above the rest.

I recently read the biography Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. While it was a long and dense book (904 pages), it was incredibly interesting. In the book there is a lot about the Revolutionary War. It gave me an in depth understanding of why certain decisions were made and how close the USA came to not being a nation at all. More importantly, the book describes in great detail how George Washington, largely through his leadership, as a general and as President, won the Revolutionary War and held a fledgling nation together.

The book got me thinking about the leadership qualities of George Washington and techniques he used during the turbulent Revolutionary period. This year I had the privilege to take an Executive MBA class at Duke University called the Duke Leadership Program that provided a excellent framework about leadership principles (i.e., Rules for Leadership). They call it the Six Domains of Leadership. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to model Washington’s qualities and behavior to aspects of the Six Domains.

Here’s my take on Washington’s “Rules for Leadership”:

  • Provide a vision – Washington firmly believed the colonies would be a better place if they were ruled by the people, not a distant king in a distant land. He consistently reminded the men what they were fighting for.
  • Have confidence – Washington had a swagger that was noted by many and transferred that confidence to the army even when they were up against a superior force.
  • Demonstrate courage and sacrifice – Washington often led by being on the front line, not at the rear giving orders. In fact in the French and Indian War “he absorbed four bullets in his coat and hat and had two horses shot from under him…”
  • Promote a climate of excellence – In the post war years as President, Washington surrounded himself with a highly educated cabinet who had differing political ideologies. While this led to some extremely difficult situations, in the end it helped establish a very even system of government with judicial, legislative, and executive powers evenly distributed.
  • Be fair – Washington treated the men under his command with dignity but also meted out punishment when necessary regardless of rank.
  • Provide protection – During the war, Washington’s commanding officers were relatively green and made mistakes. Even though he was often criticized by Congress and others, he believed in his commanders and kept them as part of his team, many of whom went on to do great things themselves like Alexander Hamilton.

Ironically the one area where he might be questioned around leadership is ethics as he often tried to profit from land speculation based on inside information he had.

For anyone who’s interested in learning more about the Six Domains, check out a description of Duke’s Leadership Program here.

Special note: I’m excited to announce that our keynote at the InRule User Community Meeting (IUCM) this year (Oct 17 & 18) will feature one of the professors from Duke, Dr. Ashleigh Rosette, who will give an overview of the Six Domains. It’s really good stuff. If you are interested in attending the IUCM, please check out our registration page here.