Best Business Lessons From George Washington

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- As we celebrate President's Day, it makes sense to look back in history to find one of the best examples of a great leader -- George Washington, our nation's first president.

Washington would have celebrated his 280th birthday on Wednesday. His contributions, first as the commander-in-chief to free America from Britain's grip in the American Revolutionary War and then as our nation's first president, are numerous and immeasurable. The U.S. would not be what it is today without his strong sense of morality and general instinct to do what was right for the country, as opposed to inflating his own ego.

Washington's lessons can be translated to the business world as well. In the fourth installment of advice from the greats, the national hero joins a growing group of legends -- Apple's ( AAPL) Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Joe Paterno.

Here are three lessons Washington can offer the business world:

1. Lead by example.
"What's really interesting about Washington as a leader is he led by example. He participated in what was being accomplished by not sitting by the sidelines," says Karen Russo, president of IIPE Executive Research .

Employees need a role model in an organization, someone who sets standards and expectations for others to follow, Russo says.

Leading by example also generates respect. If a business owner or CEO is too casual, unfocused or generally unproductive, subordinates will emulate those qualities. "Leading by example is really setting the stage for what the tone of the organization is going to be," she says.

Leading by example also gives business owners a better sense of what can be accomplished by employees. It does no one good, least of all the overall company, when goals are set so lofty that they are unattainable.

"For me as a business owner, I take the time to work on my business as well as work in my business," Russo says, meaning the more she understands about how employees go about tasks, the better she can assess problems and make changes as needed.

"I need to feel what it is like, what they're experiencing and I need to work on it because I'm the brains behind it," she says. "If I can't offer them ideas to make them more effective then I'm not leading by example."

2. Be consistent with your message internally and externally.
Washington was "first and foremost, trustworthy and charismatic, and people looked up to him because he stood firm on his beliefs," says Steven Raz, co-founder of Cornerstone Search Group, an executive search firm that concentrates on the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.

"One has to be fair and be consistent. That doesn't mean everybody is going to agree, but they're going to respect you. It's when people are not consistent or they give preferential treatment or don't hold by their moral fabric that people lose faith in their leaders," Raz adds.

Part of that consistency is being able to delegate tasks so business owners and managers can free up time to see the big picture. Washington recognized this, which allowed him to be more innovative in molding our young country.

"Sometimes you're not the best person to do that job," Russo says. Leaders need to know "when are you more useful in another place in another role. What Washington was good at was knowing the people he had around him were people he could trust and they were strong thinkers and complemented the skills that he didn't have. The same applies in business."

3. Listen more, talk less.
There are some CEOs, business owners and managers who get so caught up in their own importance that they forget whom they're speaking with -- often, it's employees. These are the people doing the everyday jobs to make your business successful. So it's important to take the time to talk with your employees regularly, ask how they're doing, address any challenges they encounter and be open to suggestions from them on how to improve business functions.

Craig Libis, CEO of Executive Recruiting Consultants says managers can learn from Washington in that he was a "silent leader."

"I think it was John Adams who said Washington possessed the gift of silence. He spoke very seldom. He just bought that quiet presence that everyone looked up to, but he was extremely persistent, and I think we can all take something away from that," Libis says. "We can learn so much from listening versus speaking and talking, which a lot of us like to do. Listen twice as much as you talk and ask a lot of questions."

Of course, maybe the most important lesson we can learn from President Washington is not to chop down any cherry trees.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.

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