George Washington: The OG Spy

My family is still reveling in the joy of a great spring break trip to Washington, DC. We captured the cherry blossoms in full bloom! We were delighted in a nighttime monument tour with a full moon. We saw the Declaration of Independence, the Wright Brother’s plane, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and the Hope Diamond. And, yes, I did take naps between the NC State Women’s and Men’s wins on Sunday. (Go Pack!) But the shock that our family keeps coming back to is the fact that George Washington was the first, or OG, spy!

This was our first trip to The International Spy Museum, and it did not disappoint! Who knew that Julia Child worked directly for Office of Strategic Services chief William Donovan as part of America’s wartime spy agency? But our real surprise came from thinking of Washington as our first spymaster.

Washington had a vision to lead America through a war and gain our independence. He knew he could not outfight the British, but as one British intelligence officer said, “He simply outspied us.”

In 1777, Washington sent this letter to Nathaniel Sackett offering $50 a month (more than $1,000 today) to spy for the Continental Army, plus another $500 to set up a spy network. Sackett did it and set up a network of individuals in key places and all walks of life. As you know, this intelligence worked.

What struck me was the leadership of Washington to set up this network. His openness to allow others to drive a process, and his willingness to seek real information. He did not have “yes men (and women)” telling him what he wanted to hear. He sought a real assessment of what was occurring on the ground so that his next steps were meaningful.

Many times in our work people ask for the “secret sauce” or the short cut to get to where they want to land. I always say there is no secret sauce, just hard work. Now I am going to change my answer slightly. Over the past year I have walked with several organizations charting their next course of their strategic plan and have been shocked and amazed by the vision they created. They did have the “secret sauce.” It was leadership.

Leadership is the ability and behaviors to unite, guide, and compel a group forward, but most importantly together. Washington had leadership. He did not seek to control but used the assets and information around him to chart a path forward.

If you have worked with Armstrong McGuire before, you know we always start with some form of assessment. We believe it is critical for leadership to have a real assessment of strengths, challenges, opportunities, and threats. It can be hard to receive some of that feedback, but the groups who embrace it fully jump quicker and farther towards a vision of impact. True leadership gives you the behaviors to receive the information honestly and loosely to establish your guideposts: vision, mission, and values. Those guideposts help you determine your strategic priorities and then make critical decisions as you live into your plan.

So next time you think about what’s next, what your priorities should be, think like Washington. Be the leader who seeks a real assessment and then set your sights high!

PS: Yes, my husband came home with the socks! We could not resist.


Mendi Nieters is a Senior Advisor with Armstrong McGuire who specializes in strategic planning, fund development, and leadership development. Learn more about Mendi and check out her other musings in her bio. Listen to what Mendi has to say about strategic planning in this short video.

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