America's Original 'CEO President'

George W. Bush has been called the "CEO President," but a new book says he's not the only commander-in-chief to serve in a similar role. In fact, this nation's very first president, George Washington, can also lay claim to the moniker. Washington oversaw two American start-ups: the Army and the presidency. Richard Brookhiser, author of George Washington on Leadership, talks with NPR's Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

If big money CEOs like Jack Welch and Donald Trump can get their names on self-help books about leadership, why can't the greatest leader in American history? Well, he's finally done it. The book is called "George Washington on Leadership." And the man behind the book, historian Richard Brookhiser, joins us now from New York. Welcome.

Mr. RICHARD BROOKHISER (Author, "George Washington on Leadership"): Glad to be here.

RAZ: Now, Mr. Brookhiser, you called George Washington America's founding CEO. What do you mean by that?

Mr. BROOKHISER: Well, he was an executive in three different roles, and he rose to the top in each one of them. He was the first commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, from 1775 to 1783. He was the first president, and he also made himself America's richest man with a combination of agriculture at his Mount Vernon plantation and land speculation.

RAZ: I think the term you used to describe him is as the leader of the biggest start-up in history. And you're talking about the United States, of course.

Mr. BROOKHISER: Well, that's right. And there are two aspects of it. When the Continental Congress makes him commander-in-chief in the spring of 1775 and they send him up to Boston, where the first battles of the Revolution have already happened, the Army he is taking command of is a group of New England militias, and it's soon augmented by soldiers from other states.

But there had never been an American Army. The structure was completely new and then similarly, Washington is the first president and he has to determine the precedence for that office. So once again, this is venturing into brand-new territory.

RAZ: I mean, we often are told not sweat the small stuff. But you write that General George Washington was all about the small stuff, and it has something to do with latrines.

Mr. BROOKHISER: Sometimes the small stuff is the huge stuff. You know, it sounds almost comic, but if your soldiers do not pay attention to proper sanitation, they're going to get sick, and then you will not effective soldiers. And in a new army, it was vital for the commander-in-chief to stay on top of this.

RAZ: And this is in the middle of the war.

Mr. BROOKHISER: That's right. I mean, it's not all glory and gunfire and battles, and it's not even all planning the next battle. A lot of it is the routines of logistics, how do we get supplied, how do we stay healthy. So, you know, when you're at the top, you're being bombarded by problems, many of which don't appear to be in your job description. But you better be able to handle them because if you can't, the whole thing falls apart.

RAZ: Now, is it possible, Richard Brookhiser, to fall into the trap of sort of venerating George Washington's leadership simply because he lived a long time ago? I mean, this was long before 24-hour news and the Internet. Were there decisions he made that can be considered failures?

Mr. BROOKHISER: Well, look, he lost a lot of battles in the Revolution. You know, depending on how you score certain engagements, he lost as many as he won. It's certainly the case that he only finds a personal solution to the problem of slavery in his own life at the end of his life when he frees all his slaves in his will.

This is late in the day, but it does come before the end of the day. But what he does have is this amazing persistence. He serves through eight-and-a-half years of our first war, and this is longer than the Civil War and our share in World War II put together. And then he presides over the constitutional convention, and then he is president for eight more years.

So, we're talking about a period of service at the top of over 16 years. This is by far the longest stretch of being number one in American history. And the follow-through here is enormously impressive.

RAZ: Now, oddly enough, George Washington was not a great communicator. I understand he only spoke three times at the constitutional convention. That's over a four-month period. But don't you have to be a good communicator to be a successful leader?

Mr. BROOKHISER: He was an excellent communicator but often not by the use of words. He was not a great orator; he was a good writer - he was not a great writer. So he communicated by his presence on the battlefield.

RAZ: Well, Mr. Brookhiser, thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. BROOKHISER: Thank you.

RAZ: Richard Brookhiser is an historian and the author of the new book, "George Washington on Leadership." He joined us from New York.

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