“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them,
to enjoy them and to dominate them.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Emotional Intelligence is the ability to be self-aware of the impact of our emotions – and control them – and it is awareness of and understanding the emotions of others. At the core, Emotional Intelligence is connecting with others through empathy to build relationships and achieve goals.
Emotional Intelligence is a modern-day concept. No studies or books could have guided Washington back in his day. But as we study Washington’s development as a leader, do his efforts provide an example of what can happen if one is dedicated to improving one’s emotional intelligence?
Last week, Baylor Law was fortunate to host a virtual presentation on Leadership Lessons from George Washington. Award-winning historian David Stewart, was interviewed by Talmage Boston, a well-respected trial lawyer and author, to discuss the leadership journey of our first president. In his research for his latest book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, Stewart discovered that “Washington’s rise constitutes one of the greatest self-reinvention in history.”
David Stewart described George Washington as a brash and arrogant young man – far from the respected father figure we see in portraits. Stewart notes, “From his earliest days, Washington hungered for distinction, for a high reputation that would validate his worth. Washington wrote in his early twenties that ‘the chief part of my happiness’ was ‘the esteem and notice the country has been pleased to honor me with.’” His judgment in early years appeared to have been guided, or misguided, by an excessive ego. And his failures were many in those early military years. Stewart writes of a transformation that took place in his mid-twenties. “Through that prolonged period of forced introspection, Washington evidently resolved on a fundamental change of direction.” By his mid-forties, Washington had transformed himself into the legendary leader known as a caring and quite gentleman who wrote much later in life that his “only ambition is to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it and to merit the good opinion of all good men.”
The respected leader at the First Continental Congress in 1774 was “almost unrecognizable when compared to the man who led the Virginia Regiment two decades before,” wrote Stewart. To what does Stewart attribute this transformation?
Washington studied his flaws. From a young age, he struggled against his own nature. His early missteps might have crippled the prospects of a person with less dogged commitment to self-improvement. He ruthlessly suppressed qualities that could hinder his advancement and mastered those that could assist it. Washington’s story is not one of effortless superiority, but one of excellence achieved with great effort.
As we shared in our last blog on Emotional Intelligence, willingness to earnestly and honestly examine yourself and seek self-control are hallmarks of Emotional Intelligence. Awareness of other people and their circumstances with a desire to build relationships and work well with others represent two more key components of EI. George Washington may not have possessed it at the beginning of his career, but his later unanimous election victories indicate he earned it in abundance.
Stewart’s book is, according to the Wall Street Journal, “an outstanding biography that both avoids hagiography and acknowledges the greatness of Washington’s character.” I also learned that while Washington was not a lawyer, he served as Fairfax County Court justice for six years and presided over hundreds of matters. His time as a judge “season[ed] his judgment,” “bolstered his habits of acting cooperatively with peers, listening to differing views, and reconciling his ideas with those of others,” all of which well prepared him for his role as our Founding Father and First President. Washington’s willingness to listen to others with differing opinions and his selfless leadership were essential to seeing our nation through its fragile beginnings. Stewart stated, “Washington gave the United States something every nation needs, but few get: a national hero who understands that heroism includes giving up power and trusting your neighbors, that integrity and virtue – old-fashion concepts even in the eighteenth century – are a greater legacy than personal aggrandizement and national conquest.”
In the interview, we appreciate Stewart’s thoughtful response to questions about Washington’s unwillingness to free his slaves during his lifetime which provides yet another reason to include Washington in our leadership studies. Washington could make an ideal subject for a class discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of our leaders and the complicated nature of leading in the midst of challenging times. We highly recommend the book, and we hope you enjoy the interview!