At a time when many Americans are dissatisfied with government performance and fewer than 40 percent view either of the two major political parties as favorable,[i] the words “agility” and “Washington” don’t seem to fit well together.
But what about a different Washington—George, not D.C.?
Looking back upon the American Revolution, one can argue that American success in achieving independence was due to the operational and strategic mistakes of the British. That argument has plenty of merit. Another argument, however, is that the American General George Washington operated with a posture of strategic agility, giving him and his forces the dynamic capability to sense and respond to the environment they faced. That claim also has merit.
First, Washington knew that success depended upon inspiring his soldiers and the population to believe in the greater cause of the conflict. Success for the Americans surely could not come from its training, numbers, professionalism, or experience—in all of these, the British held the firm advantage. Washington recognized that his strategy must, therefore, be one that recognized the weaknesses of his position.[ii]
The primary strength, however, that the Americans had was its belief system and sense of having been wronged—betrayed, even—by the British. Washington recognized this and used it to his advantage, which demonstrates a sense of strategic agility. As such, he drew upon a fervent belief that his work had a divine purpose and a deep conviction in fighting for the freedom of Americans.[iii] This core belief built resilience within Washington himself as a leader and among his troops during desperate times, including the winter of 1778 in Valley Forge.
Second, Washington knew he must avoid a catastrophic large-scale encounter with the superior British forces. This approach highlights another aspect of his strategically agile sensibility. Namely, it demonstrates knowledge of his own capabilities along with the potential weaknesses of the British in waging a protracted war—one that was thousands of miles from their political leadership and primary source of supplies.
After suffering disastrous defeats in Canada and Long Island early in the war, Washington renewed his commitment to a defensive strategy. That move bought him and his forces the time necessary to stay intact while hoping that the British would grow weary of the protracted war.[iv]
Third, Washington—like Sun Tzu, the ancient military theorist upon whom much of early business strategy was based[v]—continually pushed for the latest intelligence about his foe. He continually gave tremendous attention to intelligence collection, including the use of spy networks.[vi] Such attention proved useful in his knowledge regarding the intentions of the British in New Jersey and allowed the Americans to create and capitalize on opportunities against the British in that same region.[vii]
By such use of information, Washington effectively remained abreast of changing conditions—both among his enemy and their movements and among the local population. Such information and the aggressive leadership by Washington to acquire additional intelligence reflect his ability to collect evidence for use in strategic decision making.
Being agile continually requires leaders to seek new information, challenge assumptions, and respond in a way that recognizes one’s limitations. In many ways, this is what George Washington did as a leader during the American Revolution.
And more than 200 years later, Washington’s actions continue to deliver lessons that are relevant in today’s turbulent business environment.
[i] Lydia Saad, “Neither Major Party Cracks 40% Favorability in Latest Poll,” March 16, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/181985/neither-major-party-cracks-favorability-latest-poll.aspx?utm_source=&utm_medium=&utm_campaign=tiles.
[ii] Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A a History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Nachdruck, Wars of the United States Series (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991).
[iii] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause the American Revolution, 1763 - 1789, Rev. and expanded ed, The Oxford History of the United States, C. Vann Woodward, general ed. ; Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
[iv] Ibid.; Weigley, The American Way of War: A a History of United States Military Strategy and Policy.
[v] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B Griffith (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).
[vi] Weigley, The American Way of War: A a History of United States Military Strategy and Policy.
[vii] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, Pivotal Moments in American History (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).