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Washington and Lee Celebrates Leadership on Founders’ Day (Audio/Video)

On a day when Washington and Lee University celebrated leadership by inducting new and honorary members into Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow addressed the leadership of George Washington in his talk to the Founders’ Day audience in Lee Chapel.

“Washington possessed the most extraordinary gifts of leadership, and these are gifts of leadership that I fear are sorely lacking among our politicians today,” said Chernow, who won his Pulitzer for Washington: A Life, his 2010 book.


During the Revolutionary War, Chernow said, Washington knew how to motivate his soldiers “by making them see themselves as actors in a grand historical pageant, this glorious fight for freedom.” Only Winston Churchill did that better, Chernow said.

“Washington made the lowliest grunt feel that his sacrifice mattered,” he said. “At the same time, he never assumed that people were saints, and he regularly issued orders before battles warning that any soldiers who deserted would be shot dead on the spot”

Chernow noted that Washington made people strive to meet his “impossibly high” standards and “never confused leadership with a popularity contest.”

” thought that a leader should strive to be respected and not liked,” Chernow said. “He is saying this already in his 20s. The irony is that he became so respected that he became not only liked, but loved.”

In his introduction of Chernow, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio paid tribute to the University’s other namesake and former president, Robert E. Lee, on whose birthday each year Founders’ Day is held.

Founders’ Day, said Ruscio, is now an occasion to remind ourselves of Lee’s most enduring legacy: “leadership and its centrality to the Washington and Lee mission, not just leadership but a particular kind of leadership, one with integrity, honor and service to others as defining qualities.”

Ruscio said that he worries about the tendency in society to caricature historical figures as either heroes or villains, “to attack or defend rather than understand.”

“We should honor and respect the past, but not worship it. History is history, the study of imperfect people in imperfect times,” he added. “We should look for religion elsewhere. The study of history, properly done, should guide us, not blind us; it should broaden our vision of the future, not narrow it.”

The University’s Alpha Chapter of ODK inducted 31 students and four honorary initiates — two alumni, Alfred Harrison ’61, of Wayzata, Minn., and Hal F. Higginbotham ’68, of New York, and two faculty members, Suzanne Parker Keen, Thomas Broadus Professor of English, and Elizabeth Goad Oliver, Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Accounting.

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