What Great Leaders Never Do


There are many things great leaders always do, but there are some things great leaders never do. Let's examine three lessons from one of history’s greatest leaders, George Washington. Our guide is David McCullough. Our map is his book, 1776.

David McCullough is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He has also twice captured the National Book Award and he has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The man knows history. His account of the events and the people surrounding the birth of our nation are captured spectacularly in 1776.

Summarizing Washington’s impact at this critical hour in American history, McCullough writes:

But in the last analysis it was Washington and the army that won the war for American independence…. And it was Washington who held the army together and gave it “spirit” through the most desperate of times.

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he had learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.

McCullough’s summary captures three essential lessons every servant leader must revisit again and again.

1. Great leaders never stop learning

Leaders are readers. Leaders are also “incessant tinkerers.” Why? Because great leaders never stop learning! This was true of Washington. McCullough notes, “But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he had learned steadily from experience.”

Whether from experience, a formal class setting, books and blog posts, or a mentor, leaders seek out truth. And pursuing truth is something God commends:

Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.
— Proverbs 23:23 ESV

Leaders share a common DNA, that is an insatiable desire to explore, discover, and learn. Paul, a great leader of the early church, is an excellent example. He was stuck in a Roman prison but that did not squelch his desire to study. Writing to friends he said,

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
— 2 Timothy 4:13 ESV

You can’t keep great leaders from learning, not in prison, not on a subway, and not on vacation. They are constantly mining new truth. This is not “natural,” it is a discipline:

A discipline to be a learner every day.

In his book, Papa, My Father, Leo Buscaglia shared that each night when he and his siblings sat down to the dinner table, his father would ask, “And what did you learn today?” Buscaglia’s father was imbedding in his children both the necessity and discipline of learning.

A discipline to be a reader every day.

Leaders are readers. If you are in a reading slump, it’s time to learn how to break out of it. Click here to read "How To Break Out Of A Reading Slump." If you want some ideas for your reading list, Good Reads, The New York Times, and Amazon and Audible all provide helpful suggestions.

A discipline to seek out mentors every day.

Mentors are the sharpening stone of the mind. They quiz and question us. They listen and they push back. They make us better. Great leaders don’t wait for mentors. They seek them out. Click here if you want to see more on mentors.

Washington was a learner – all great leaders are. What’s your next step to becoming a better learner?

2. Great leaders never forget what is at stake

Challenges have a way of buckling the knees of even the strongest leader. Washington’s challenges were many:

  •  Too few tents to shelter his beleaguered troops
  •  A shortage of blankets and clothing
  •  The consistently foul weather
  •  Meager national funds
  •   Difficulties with Congress
  •   The problem of uniting regional armies into one Army
  •   Too many inexperienced troops

Staring down obstacle after obstacle, it was no small wonder that Washington didn’t get sidetracked or quit. So what kept him going?

Washington never lost sight of the bigger picture.

He never forgot what was at stake. In a letter to General Philip Schuyler “Washington insisted – possibly to rally his own resolve – that they must never lose sight of “the goodness of the cause.”

There is a poignant scene in the film Remember The Titans that illustrates the power of conveying what is at stake. Coach Boone, played by Densel Washington, has taken his racially torn team to Gettysburg. Standing at the battlefield he says,

Anybody know what this place is? This is Gettysburg. This is where they fought the Battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fightin’ the same fight that we’re still fightin’ amongst ourselves today. This green field right here, painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pourin’ right through their bodies. Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, you take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other right now, but you will respect each other. And maybe – I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.

Leaders take time to recalibrate their vision and their team by aligning both with the greater cause for which they strive. Small business expert and syndicated columnist Rhonda Abrams puts it this way:

A leader looks at the big picture, sets high-level goals and strategy, establishes clear standards and values, motivates, identifies opportunities and threats on a business-wide level, measures success at the financial and strategic level, and empowers others to take action.
— Rhonda Abrams

Whether we call it “the bigger picture,” “the cause,” or “what’s at stake,” Christian leaders know that ultimately what matters is the glory of God :

  • And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17 ESV
  • So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV

Outlining goals and strategy, opportunities and threats in light of that bigger picture is a game changer. Here are two questions to think about: First, “What’s at stake” in your organization? Second, what does it mean for you to pursue your cause to the glory of God?

3. Great leaders never give up

McCullough captures the power of a Washington’s persevering spirit. Writing about the Battle of Trenton, he notes that it was the “brilliant stroke” that turned the tied for the Continental Army and for American independence:

From the last week of August to the last week of December, the year 1776 had been as dark a time as those devoted to the American cause had ever known—indeed, as dark a time as any in the history of the country. And suddenly, miraculously it seemed, that had changed because of a small band of determined men and their leader.

Great leaders never give up. As Washington himself has said, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” Indeed! The persevering spirit of the man who was eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” still works wonders in every leadership endeavor.

If you want to lead from “Here to There,” from “To Do” to “Done,” perseverance is essential, and for those who follow God it is guaranteed:  

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
— Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV

Yes, God cares about your leadership, but he cares even more about you. Lean on him and you will find the power to persevere.

Washington is living proof that leadership excellence is always in reach. It begins with what we never do. So never stop learning, never forget what is at stake, and never give up. Trust God for your leadership. He will help you.


  • “But in the last analysis …” David McCullough, 1776.  New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. Page 293.
  • “incessant tinkerers” … I heard that interesting phrase from Bill Hybels.
  • “But experience had been…” David McCullough, 1776, page 293.
  • “the goodness of our cause” … David McCullough, 1776, page 41.
  • “Anybody know what this place is …” Remember The Titans, 2000. Walt Disney. Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard.
  • “A leader looks at the big picture” Rhonda Abrams: Strategies. July 13, The Costco Connection.
  • “From the last week of August” … David, McCullough, 1776, page 291.
  • “Perseverance and spirit …” George Washington, Letter to General Philip Schuyler, August 20, 1775.
  • Henry Lee spoke these words at Washington’s funeral.

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