My sister – who’s making her second appearance in a row in my posts – lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, not far from the spot at McConkey’s Ferry where, on Christmas night, 1776, Washington led his troops across the Delaware River on the way to a victory over 1500 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. That daring attack changed the course of the American Revolution. In my first blog post last fall, I wrote about the American mythology of singular renegades striking out on their own and that myth’s place in the American self-image of individuality and entrepreneurial spirit. Much of that legend is rooted in our affection for George Washington, whose selflessness, heroism and morality (the fabled cherry tree and “I cannot tell a lie”) – no matter the degree of fiction involved – embody the American ideal, and it’s why his birth is commemorated each year as a federal holiday (more on that at the end).
It’s no wonder, then, that in discussing the value of working in groups to address complex issues, Rocky Mountain Institute’s Sarah Bahan looked to the crossing of the Delaware – a series of brilliant tactical moves that are both true and extraordinary – for inspiration. Bahan picks up the story following the return of Washington’s troops from Trenton:
- The victorious Americans returned to Pennsylvania across an ice-filled river with their prisoners, only to learn that Cornwallis’ British forces had fallen into complete disarray. Washington felt that he had no choice but to strike during their moment of vulnerability, and thus had to muster his ragtag troops, weary from recent battle and two arduous river crossings, to once again cross the Delaware. His men were not only low on food, proper clothing, and munitions, but were scheduled to return to their homes within a week, when their enlistments expired.
- Yet Washington’s men trusted him and his decisions implicitly, largely due to his method of command. Washington held frequent councils of war during which all men were encouraged to speak freely and tactical discussions were viewed as a common effort. Washington was a master facilitator who listened to everyone’s ideas, regardless of rank or background, allowed dissenting opinions, and then built consensus.
- Camped outside of Princeton, New Jersey, Washington convened a final council, described vividly in David Hackettt Fischer’s book, Washington’s Crossing. Washington drew from the expertise and opinions of his men as well as those of civilians, deserters, and even prisoners of war. By the end of the meeting, everyone present was in agreement that they should strike Princeton and Brunswick immediately. Both towns were captured, and the victories proved to be the turning point in the Americans’ war for independence.
Would anyone argue that Washington could have designed and executed such a game-changing plan of attack on his own? As brilliant a tactician as he was, it’s practically inconceivable. Washington’s genius in this situation was a strategic one: He brought the right people together to collaboratively solve their problem together, as a group.
As Bahan points out, collaboration helps impart specific knowledge on group members, making everyone in the group more effective, and can make group members more efficient when dealing with more complex tasks. Washington’s implicit knowledge of this group dynamic – and the way he incorporated his anti-imperial leanings into his leadership style – were essential to turning the revolutionary effort in the former colonies’ favor.
And now some quick thoughts on today’s holiday having nothing to do with coworking. The federal holiday is, and remains, officially, “Washington’s Birthday” and not “President’s Day.” (Check out Section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code.) Contrary to a popular misconception, the federal government never eliminated the observance of Washington’s (or any other president’s) birthday, or combined multiple birthdays, to justify adding another federal holiday. And while today isn’t actually Washington’s birthday – we always observe on the third Monday in February – neither is February 22. Sort of. Washington was actually born on February 11, 1732, but the date of his birth was “changed” in 1752 due to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.