Editor’s note: A version of this column originally ran in November 2016 and has been updated in honor of America’s first president on Presidents Day.
George Washington was an extraordinary leader, among the greatest in all of human history. Following the Revolutionary War, he had access to absolute power. He could have been, and scores of Americans wanted him to be, king. Many declared him the indispensable and irreplaceable man. Sadly, most men and women hearing such accolades of indispensability listen to that siren song, assume it is a choir of angels, and then begin to believe it and act on it. Washington knew better and rejected the throne of irreplaceability while setting a standard of servant-leadership for all to follow.
I regularly saw the fallacy of the “irreplaceable” in my work as a business consultant. Whenever I heard an executive say “Mary is irreplaceable” or “Steve is indispensable,” I knew there might be a big problem. I would respond to such statements by asking what would happen if Mary quit tomorrow, or Steve tragically got hit by a bus. This usually drew a nervous laugh or long moment of silence as the executive realized the fallacy, risk and irresponsibility of allowing someone to become irreplaceable. (Of course, some people are harder to replace and their absence more difficult to overcome.)
The irreplaceable often became a constraining force for innovation, growth and improvement in the organization. It also inhibited the development of other leaders, created a dependency culture and in many instances undermined the mental muscle and personal commitment of others inside the company.
Sadly, the American people have also begun to buy into the indispensable leader syndrome. Currently, the United States Congress has an approval rating that hovers somewhere around 9-14 percent. Yet, incumbents in Congress are reelected at a rate of about 94 percent.
Despite a presidential election in 2016 that was a message from voters to change politics as usual and “drain the swamp,” the status quo has mostly been maintained in the U.S. House and Senate, with few seats changing hands and even fewer changes in the leadership of either party.
It is easy to cast aspersions on the rest of Congress while convincing your constituents they cannot survive without you. This attitude fosters the belief that some political savior can waltz in from Washington and fix all our problems — further weakening the nation as more and more citizens absolve themselves of personal responsibility. Ultimately this ends in an imperial presidency with their political pals and pawns running, and often ruining, the nation. This never ends well for everyday citizens. A quick glance to Venezuela provides perspective where the irreplaceable leader turns strong man and transforms into a tyrannical dictator.
If we begin to view political leaders as replaceable, they will be, and elections will become less consequential to our lives because we will make government less consequential in our lives.
During my time in Washington, I regularly walked through the Capitol rotunda late at night. I would always pause and spend a few moments gazing at the majestic painting of Washington resigning his commission. In the quiet and stillness of the empty rotunda, you can hear and sense and know the principles that made Washington an authentic and extraordinary leader.
Monday, Feb. 18, is President’s Day. But for and and every would-be leader — political or otherwise — the date of Dec. 23, 1783, is the day worth noting, remembering and studying. On that day, in the ultimate act of servant-leadership, Washington resigned his commission before the Continental Congress. In one of the few instances in history, the commander of the conquering forces did not assume complete authority, control and power, but instead returned it to the citizens and their representatives.3 comments on this story
George Washington clearly understood that power is not something to amass, barter with or cling to, nor is it a tool for pursuing political purposes and self-promotion. While many proclaimed him to be indispensable and irreplaceable, Washington knew that the future of the nation wasn’t dependent on him. He believed America’s destiny would be secured, down through the ages, by individual citizens who would enter the world’s stage, make a contribution in their homes, communities and country and then travel on.
It is individual Americans living and applying indispensable truths and irreplaceable principles that guarantee America will remain a nation indivisible with liberty, justice and opportunity for all.