The Smartest Person in the Room by Tom Reynolds
What should we look for in political leaders? Obviously, we want to vote for people who share our beliefs and values. Unfortunately, no matter what you believe, probably half the country does not share your values. How much should the candidate’s background affect your vote; some believe that an extensive background in government is good while others see it as a negative. An Ivy League education seems to be in vogue but one writer spoke for millions of us when he said he, “…would rather be ruled by the first 200 people in the Boston telephone book that the Harvard faculty”. We could go on but it should be apparent that there is wide disagreement on what we want in our politicians. But there are some things upon which we should all agree and we only have to look at yesterday’s birthday to see who set that standard.
Historians tend to downplay George Washington’s intelligence because he did not have much formal education and he was surrounded by some other brilliant founders: Alexander Hamilton; Thomas Jefferson; John Marshall; to name a few. But when decisions needed to be made, the person most trusted to make the right decision was George Washington.
So, was Washington really the smartest guy in the room or was it something else that made him special?
Certainly, intelligence is a factor, but there are lots of intelligent people. Should we have political candidates take an IQ test and elect the highest scorer? Adolph Hitler had a photographic memory and Napoleon Bonaparte was noted for his high intelligence. Anyone want them for a President?
What one does with their intelligence is more important. What we should look for and demand in leadership is wisdom.
The dictionary describes wisdom as, “The soundness of action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge and good judgment”. I would only amend that to say “the soundness of decision AND action”; sound decisions without proper follow up rarely succeed. And bad decisions often get implemented to the detriment of society. Washington made good decisions and then implemented them.
Wisdom is learned and not gifted at birth. Washington was too ambitious as a young man but learned from his experiences and grew into wisdom. By the time he emerged on center stage in 1775, he was ready. That doesn’t mean he did not make mistakes – he did – but he didn’t make many. For 22 years, from 1775 until 1797, he was at the center of leadership in America and faced more decisions of grave consequence than any other American in history. No one else is even close. He did not miss on many.
There are questions we should ask ourselves when deciding on our vote. How many people look at candidates for office and ask, “Is this someone I want making life and death decisions? Do they have the wisdom needed to make those decisions?” If you can’t trust them with life and death decisions, should you trust them with the everyday decisions?
We all recognize that U.S. Presidents send people off to war but often forget that Congress has to directly or indirectly approve that action; both Presidents and Congress make decisions that kill people and their implementation of those decisions dictate the length of the killing and the carnage involved. Judges get nominated by the President and governors; judges make decisions over life and death, freedom or imprisonment. When a pandemic or natural disaster hits, governors and mayors and county executives make life and death decisions; how many voters imagined a governor would be deciding the fate of nursing home residents?
Washington was known for his emotions and temper but he kept them under control and let wisdom, not emotions, lead him to decisions. Within a few years of Washington taking command of the Continental Army, it was obvious that he was the right man to make life and death decisions.
Another factor is the candidates’ lust for power. Ambition is okay but ambition without ethics is a disaster. Washington was one of the few people in world history to give up power willingly and he is the only one to give it up twice! He didn’t need power to be complete but he was willing to assume power, when called by his country. Beware of legislators hanging on to power in their 80’s and 90’s, their life is centered on personal power and not society’s needs.
When a thirty-something congressperson decides they are qualified to be President, we should only laugh; they may have the right politics but the wisdom…doubtful. Making good speeches is not wisdom.
It’s unfair to compare any potential political leader to Washington. He was almost unique in the history of the world. But his attributes are a good benchmark for comparison, while understanding that everyone will fall somewhat short. Being the smartest person in the room is more than memorization and the ability to speak. Wisdom and ethical ambition need to be present.
Happy late birthday, George. And thanks for all you did.