This article was subject to a feature in GW Magazine.

An area that has excited much interest in both business and business schools is the intersection of leadership and entrepreneurship. The last quarter of the 20th century saw an explosion of research and research-based practice in these areas, but only in the present century have they come together to form a new—and relevant—focus for both research and practice. In the last century considerable progress was made in understanding the nature of leadership, as based in the person of the leader, in the skills he or she could display and in the nature of the organization in which leadership was exercised.

Similarly, an explosion of research on entrepreneurship led to a better understanding of the nature of entrepreneurial activity, which involves innovation, risk and marketing, as well as certain characteristics of

Recent biographies of George Washington have identified ways in which the first U.S. president and the namesake of our university exhibited both great leadership and great entrepreneurship and how these two forces may combine.

What Is Leadership?

Ask a hundred leadership scholars the question, “What is leadership?” and chances are you’ll get a hundred different answers. But underlying those answers is a common set of basic elements. Leadership involves the leader’s personal character. It relies on certain skills. And its focus is a “system,” be it a team, an organization or a nation.

Leaders are characterized by self-confidence, but this is not necessarily an inborn trait. More often it is learned at an early age, as future leaders engage in actions that result in positive results and come to understand that they are capable of attaining their desired goals by means of their own behavior. More generally, leaders understand cause-effect relationships and how to link actions to outcomes.

Leaders are characterized by self-confidence, but this is not necessarily an inborn trait.

Effective leaders’ most important skill is that of communication. They are, however, not just good communicators, they express themselves so that others see that the leader’s words are followed by consistent actions, resulting in followers’ trust.

Finally, the leader’s understanding of how to make things happen, of the actions needed to achieve desired results, is applied to the team, the firm or the state as a “vision.” Leaders’ communication skill is critical here, as is followers’ trust in the leader. But the most important factor for turning a vision into results is an understanding of cause-effect relationships—the basis for self-confidence.

Washington the Leader

A leader as renowned as Dwight Eisenhower is reputed to have said that leadership is about getting others to do what you want while thinking they are doing so because they want to. But in action, as both general of the army and chief executive of the nation, Eisenhower knew full well that effective leadership empowers followers to act to achieve shared goals.

But our focus is the example set by Washington. There is little argument that Washington was an extraordinarily effective leader, both as commanding general of the Continental Army and as our first president. His biographers and contemporaries have observed that his self-confidence played an important part in his success as a leader. Self-confidence is, however, rarely a natural characteristic. It has to be learned. Washington was fortunate in his work as a surveyor at the age of 16. He was able to develop and apply practical skills and receive positive judgments from his employers, a crucial step in developing the self-confidence that would serve him well in later life.

A leader as renowned as Dwight Eisenhower is reputed to have said that leadership is about getting others to do what you want while thinking they are doing so because they want to. But in action, as both general of the army and chief executive of the nation, Eisenhower knew full well that effective leadership empowers followers to act to achieve shared goals.

Both scholars and popular writers examining leadership note the importance of a second personal characteristic, typically labeled “vision.” Washington’s contemporaries noted his long-term outlook, which is a key element of vision. A leader’s vision is not simply the image of a desirable future or goal. Rather, vision consists of the ability to understand how to get to that future, through a series of step-by-step actions over time.

Most of us can think through actions and outcomes over the short run—days and, perhaps, weeks. Leaders look at sequences of actions over months and even years. Certainly that is true of Washington as a military leader. He was not simply looking at how to provision his freezing and starving troops so as to survive the harsh winter of 1777 in Valley Forge. He was, even then, working on the strategy that would defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.

What Is Entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is not a new development. In the 16th century, as England moved from feudalism to a market economy, Richard Cantillon wrote what seems to be the first modern treatise on macroeconomics. In that work he describes what he called “undertakers.” By that he meant not individuals who deal with deceased persons but those who undertake new—and often previously unknown—ventures. Such a person might, for example, establish a laundry, offering to clean others’ clothing for a price in contrast to the social norm of doing one’s own laundry. But this innovative undertaker, this entrepreneur, need not be the inventor of a new service or product. Rather, the entrepreneur carries an innovation to market, after assessing the risk of failure and concluding that such risk would not be so great as to outweigh the potential rewards of success.

Successful entrepreneurs find (or, sometimes, create) innovations that they assess as worth the risk involved in bringing them to the market. They must, then, have a good understanding of markets as well as be good at assessing risk. Innovation, risk assessment and marketing are, then, the key elements of entrepreneurship.

Washington as Entrepreneur

In private life, before the American Revolution, Washington was a well-to-do planter with a large estate, in part the result of inheritance and in part the result of his marriage to Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. Tobacco, an innovative crop of the New World, had a good market in England. However, in his career as tobacco plantation manager Washington found it difficult to turn a profit, given strong competition. Owning and running a tobacco plantation gave him socially desirable status, but Washington assessed the economic risk involved and concluded that he was more likely to prosper as a farmer—an occupation of clearly lower status. Therefore, he changed the focus of his plantation from raising tobacco to raising food crops—a profitable decision, as it turned out. Washington’s innovation was to move his plantation from unprofitable tobacco-growing to profitable farming, an innovation in organizational focus rather than specific product.

Americans are generally most familiar with Washington’s role as a military leader and a national leader. We are less aware of his key role as one of the founders of our constitutional republic. Washington had a major role in setting up the constitutional convention. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the major players in each state were committed to attending. And he worked just as hard as president of the convention to create the first constitutional republic in history. But it was not Washington “on his own” who constructed either the constitution or this new form of government. What he did was to facilitate rather than to invent.

In his role as president, however, Washington became very much of an entrepreneur. As leader of the first constitutional republic, he undertook to carry this innovation into the “marketplace” of nations. Today there are no more than a dozen or so constitutional republics, none nearly as old as the one Washington helped create and led into existence. One factor may be the culture that Washington created within this new system of government. As mentioned earlier, leadership involves action within a system, be it a team, a business (such as running a plantation) or a nation. An obvious example at the nation-level is Washington’s refusal to become “president for life” and his modeling of the two-term limit, which held for well over a hundred years and then was written into the constitution itself.

In Sum…

A closer look at his life demonstrates that George Washington was not only a great leader but was an entrepreneurial leader. GW University is committed to providing an environment where knowledge is created and acquired and where creative endeavors seek to enrich the experiences of the global society. It’s clear that 21st century challenges will call for effective entrepreneurial leaders, just as the 18th century called for leaders like George Washington. More than ever, the George Washington University, through its development of entrepreneurial leaders, is “at the center of it all.”

The authors thank GWSB Department of Management Chairman Paul Swiercz for the stimulating conversations on George Washington.