Should college professors rule the world? Lessons in leadership from the character of George Washington

26 Feb

A student once asked me after a lecture, “Wouldn’t society be much better off if we were ruled by highly intelligent college professors? I go from one class to another and it just seems like you guys have all the answers.” I suppose the flip side of that sentiment is William Buckley’s quip that “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.” To be sure, intelligence is important in public leadership, but it’s hardly synonymous with prudence, patience, diligence, virtue, management, punctuality, modesty, winsomeness, charity, humility, self-abasement, compassion, firmness, conviction, bravery, or above all, wisdom.  Intelligence loses much of its luster when weighed against these other virtues.

I’ve been reminded of this while reading Chernow’s biography of George Washington (especially the section on the first few months of his presidency, chapter 49). Washington wasn’t half the intellectual that Hamilton or Jefferson was (Washington appointed both to his cabinet), but it’s clear to me that he made for a far better first American president than either of those men would have. Hamilton was particularly brilliant, as was acknowledged by most at the time. George Washington was half the IQ, perhaps, but clearly twice the man. Despite his academic shortcomings, Jefferson saw in Washington qualities that he knew marked greatness of leadership if not greatness of intellect.  Jefferson was amazed that Washington never let hero worship, and that is most emphatically what it was, go to his head.  Though world famous, awed even in England, one Pennsylvanian observed, “It has occasionally occurred to me when in his company, that if a stranger to his person were present, he would never have known from anything said by the president that he was conscious of having distinguished himself in the eyes of the world.”  Unlike most intellectuals, Washington was slow to form or express an opinion, especially on matters of which he openly admitted his own ignorance.  He once advised his adopted grandson, “where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”  Was he slow?  Yes, insisting that “Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.”  But though sometimes frustrated by it, both Hamilton and Jefferson secretly admired him for it, recognizing that unlike themselves, Washington was wise, knowing his limitations, slow to speak, and the people from every quarter, loved him for it.  Hamilton express it well when he observed that Washington “consulted much, pondered much; resolved slowly, resolved surely.”  Though he was slow to make decisions, only after careful consultation and deliberation and contemplation, his decision was sure, inspiring confidence in nearly everyone.  Jefferson remarked that Washington’s mind was “slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”  Moreover, when he did finally express his views, again unlike most intellectuals, he did so with great winsomeness, concerned more to persuade with force of trustworthy character than dogmatic disposition.  Chernow writes, “A disciplined politician, he never had to retract things uttered in thoughtless moment.”  Counseling his  nephew, Washington wrote, “Never be agitated by more than decent warmth and offer your sentiments with modest diffidence… opinions thus given are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial style.”  Jefferson didn’t think much of Washington’s intellect, he wasn’t to be counted among the great minds and scholars of his era (like Locke, for instance).  But, appearing to compare himself, he wrote of Washington that “no judgment was ever sounder.”

America has had its share of public intellectuals assuming presidency.  Woodrow Wilson had both a law degree and PhD in Political Science.  President Obama was a lecturer at the prestigious University of Chicago law school.  But when compared to the likes of Washington or even Lincoln, neither of whom were true intellectuals, intelligence is quite an insufficient prerequisite to greatness in leading a nation.  All this to say, don’t be impressed with mere intelligence or the credentials that society attaches to it.  Intelligence is hardly the stuff of greatness.  Remember too that intellectuals trade in words and can often say a whole lot of nothing but in impressively sophisticated ways.  So, if you imitate a man simply for his intelligence, you may find yourself to be neither an excellent leader nor a good man.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Cor. 8:1

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