Walking in Washington’s Shoes Links History with Leadership

George Washington’s leadership lessons are as fresh and insightful today as they were over 200 years ago. A group of Plumbing Manufacturers International members recently had the chance to “Be Washington” for a day, learning his decision-making skills to help solve challenges facing their companies and the industry.

Held at the George Washington Leadership Institute at historic Mount Vernon, Virginia, the PMI CEO Thinking Forum allowed participants to immerse themselves in Washington’s intellect and ethics while providing time to explore new leadership strategies and learn creative ways to inspire others.

The group moved between discussions of Washington’s strategy and leadership experiences, sessions on “Leading with Character” and “Leading in Times of Today’s Crises,” private tours of his estate and rare documents room and library, and an interactive session to apply their lessons. 

Many of the participants described the forum as a unique experience that opened their eyes to how ahead of his time Washington was – as he faced extraordinary challenges in his military and political career. 

“I really enjoyed being George for a day. Until now, I didn’t truly appreciate how worldly he was and what a strong businessperson he became, which was inspirational,” said Todd Teter, president, House of Rohl, Water Innovations EMEAA, and PMI’s immediate past president. 

“This was the most intimate leadership forum I’ve ever attended, which led to great conversations and an opportunity for everyone to be heard,” said Kelly Safis, leader of sales, LIXIL Americas, a PMI member. “I’ve never seen this type of format to teach lessons in leadership, ethics and integrity using real-life situations.”

Applying patience, agility and listening to others

The forum focused on Washington’s ability to successfully incorporate agility and patience while seeking the advice of others.

Washington understood the importance of surrounding himself with a diverse group of trusted advisors and friends for guidance. “They all had very different ideas and he was able to listen to them, weigh all the options, and come up with the right answers. That’s what a strong leader does,” Safis said. “You won’t get solid debate and ideas from people who agree with you and think you’re always right.”

Tweaking strategy when necessary, or strategic agility, was one approach Washington mastered. Participants discussed ways strategic agility might be applied to the plumbing manufacturing industry. 

“Our ability to be agile as an industry is especially important in times of crisis, such as with the pandemic. Seeing Washington apply strategic agility as he led our fledgling country confirmed what a critical and practical concept it is for success,” Teter said.

Strategic patience, another leadership approach at which Washington excelled, essentially means stepping back, watching and pausing for the right opportunity to plan your next move, explained PMI’s CEO/Executive Director Kerry Stackpole. As an example, he recalled how Washington won the Whiskey Rebellion by waiting to see if public unrest would calm down over a tax on whiskey. Instead of calling in the military immediately, Washington pivoted by first sending a peace envoy in an attempt to quell the rebellion before creating and leading a large multi-state militia to stop the violent rebels. 

Testing decision-making skills using digital interactions  

The group applied the day’s lessons to test their decision-making acumen by stepping into the leadership role of Washington using Mount Vernon’s digital interactive experience. Faced with the same information and choices as Washington, participants applied their own judgment to decide how to handle two different situations. 

“It was a powerful way of learning. We used the skills we had just learned throughout the day to place ourselves in situations he had experienced, listen to the same advice from his advisors, and make our own decisions,” said Teter.

Participants noted the lively discussions and analyses that took place throughout the day and after the simulations. “This program was fundamentally different from other leadership programs I’ve attended. It wasn’t only one-way information shared in an auditorium setting. Instead, it encouraged interaction, discussion and debate,” said Martin Knieps, senior director of operational excellence at PMI member Viega and president of the PMI Board of Directors.

Moving past mistakes, having the courage to lead

“Washington never let his mistakes define him. That’s a good lesson for us all,” Safis said. “I need to be a little gentler with myself and my team in this regard.” The forum was her first PMI event after joining LIXIL earlier this year.

Participants discussed how the plumbing manufacturing industry could benefit from the lessons learned at the forum. “Washington’s courage was a huge takeaway. As a leader within my business and PMI, it means finding the courage to go to places where others might not – and lead people to those places,” Teter said. 

Knieps said he admired how Washington gave more than what he expected from others. “He led by example, always putting himself on the front lines – with the same expectations for his people. It’s how he secured their loyalty,” he added.

Safis sees an urgent opportunity for the industry to take a leadership role in solving the skilled labor shortage. “We all agree there’s a need for solving the shortage and that diversifying our workforce, particularly with women, will help,” she said. “How can we come together to make our industry more viable and attractive?”

The program wrapped up with a tour and demonstration of how Washington’s distillery and gristmill operated. It was yet another example of how America’s first president always pushed himself to learn and grow, adding innovative business leadership to his long list of skills. 

“Everything about this program was about making participants feel welcomed and ready to learn while steeping them in America’s rich history. It was a beautiful, private and exclusive setting that allowed everyone to easily share their viewpoints and experiences,” said Jodi Stuhrberg, director of PMI programs and administration, who helped organize the event.

PMI plans to continue hosting the annual PMI CEO Thinking Forum and “raising the bar on offering world-class leadership experiences” for its members, Stackpole noted. More photos from the event can be viewed at safeplumbing.org/events/event-photos.