George Washington — the ultimate crisis leader

Big Red Car here.  Nice sunny day, cold, here in the ATX.

The Boss was up before dawn and had his breakfast and was hard at work on a new deal he is working on.  An exciting new startup business.  Which brought me to the notion of leadership and, in particular, leadership in a crisis

I have often heard The Boss speak of his admiration for George Washington and his leadership — crisis leadership — in the Battle of Trenton. You probably remember that great painting by Emannuel Leutze showing the Father of Our Nation crossing the Delaware River. Grand painting, no?  Simply grand.

The Nature of the Crisis

The British under General Howe had whipped the Continentals under General George Washington across Long Island, Manhattan, Harlem and finally the Continentals hunkered down on the far side of the Delaware River using its natural barrier as their last line of resistance.

The British would have to go far to the north or to force a river crossing under fire if they wanted to continue the fight and perhaps put the death blow on the Continental Army.

The Continentals had won not a single battle though they had acquitted themselves well while retreating.  An orderly retreat or retrograde operation is one of the least understood and most difficult military operations to undertake successfully.  Done correctly, it trades time and space while husbanding the defender’s forces, bloodying the attacker, conducting a bit of attrition on the enemy’s combat power and lengthening the enemy’s supply lines and perhaps exposing a soft underbelly against which to launch a counter attack.

Not only had the Continental Army not won a single engagement, but Washington faced the impending end of the one year enlistments that many of the State militias had agreed to in their original formation of the Continental Army.

In the face of this, General George Washington decided to go over to the offensive from the safety of the far shore of the Delaware and to attack Trenton in a daring, complex military maneuver — a double river crossing and encirclement.


In life, crisis requires careful attention and sometimes the solution lies in an audacious and unexpected stroke that will throw the enemy off balance and provide room to maneuver effectively and to ultimately fight on to victory.

The parallels with business are similar.  Look to the recent Sandy superstorm for examples of good and bad crisis leadership.

The Battle of Trenton (and perhaps the landing at Inchon in the Korean War) is an example of audacity in the face of crisis.

Take just a second and consider the cards that Washington held — he had not bested the British or their Hessian mercenaries on the field of battle even once, his troops were restless and likely not to renew their enlistment, troop morale was low because of their lack of success and the weather conditions were miserable as it was the dead of winter.

As soon as the Delaware River froze, the British would be coming cross the ice to get them.  Time was not his ally.

In this frame of mind, Washington conceives of the notion of going over to the offensive and executing a plan that was incredibly complex.  His army had not yet mastered the fundamentals and he was going to undertake an operation that today would be considered a very, very complex attack. Talk about audacity!

The Boss thinks this was the instant in time in the entire Revolution that George Washington earned his greatness, that America was formed and that if not successful would have led to the snuffing out of the entire Revolution.

This was the instant that America was spawned and George Washington became the Father of our Nation.

The Plan

The plan was complex — two different forces would cross the Delaware River, one above Trenton and one below Trenton.

They would cross in the dark of night on Christmas with the Delaware at full flow, filled with ice and in a blinding snowstorm.

They would bring 18 pieces of artillery with them and conduct an encircling attack on Trenton and cut off retreat to and reinforcement from the east.  Washington would snap the bag shut and inside would be a bunch of deadly and vexed Hessians. They would engage the Hessians initially with artillery and then close with and kill or capture the lot of them.

The notion of a double river crossing under such conditions, with a makeshift flotilla of landing craft and in such weather while lugging artillery and a substantial contingent of troops was a very complex undertaking.  Remember they did not have any radios in those days.

This plan was audacious, complex, daring and was a combined arms thrust with a delicate plan of fire and maneuver.  It was a well reasoned and fully developed plan and its success is owed in great measure to the quality of the plan and its almost flawless execution.  Its anticipation of enemy reaction was flawless.  The game time adjustments were brilliant.

General Washington himself would lead the attack greatly increasing the significance of failure — if the General were captured or killed, the Revolution was arguably over for all time.  General Washington had not just birthed a plan imbued with audaciousness, he was risking the leadership of the entire Revolution.

All in!


The southern pincer failed to successfully cross the Delaware River and turned back leaving the northern pincer lead by Washington to fight on its own.  Of course, Washington did not know this as he had no communication with the southern pincer.  When they failed to show, Washington pressed the attack with his forces alone.  What a game day combat leader!

The northern pincer landed on the far shore of the river (the Trenton side) at 3:00 am achieving complete tactical surprise.  The audacity of Washington’s plan had now paid its first huge dividend.  They marched on Trenton leaving bloody footprints in the snow — some soldiers had no boots — on their rendezvous with destiny.

Washington laid his trap with MG Mercer’s force on the west as a blocking force, MG Sullivan’s forces on the south as an attacking force, MG Greene’s forces blocking any retreat to or reinforcement from Princeton to the east and Washington himself attacking from the north.  It was a well laid trap and it showed some substantial generalship as the southern blocking force was nowhere to be found.

The British forces included the Hessian forces commanded by Colonels Rahl, Knyphausen and Lossberg — these troops were mercenaries and were widely known as Jaegers.  Rahl, Knyphausen and Lossberg were seasoned and salty combat commanders who had earned their positions by Darwinian success on many battlefields.  They were infinitely more experienced than the American generals.  They had substantial artillery support.  In addition, there was a troop of the British 16th Light Dragoons.  This was a formidable force.

Washington began the dance by unleashing his artillery — one section of guns being commanded by Alexander Hamilton — on the town in which the Hessians were quartered.  His decision to bring artillery turned out to be another stroke of genius.

The Hessians had apparently known that the Americans were on their way to Trenton the night before the attack materialized but Colonel Rahl did not interrupt his dinner to investigate or to deploy defensive forces such was the disdain he held for the Continental Army.  He paid for his arrogance with his life the message found in the pocket of the blouse on his lifeless corpse.

A critical element of the maneuver element of Washington’s attack plan was to achieve surprise and to immediately attack from the South and North before the Hessians could form up or otherwise organize their defense.  This worked miraculously as the Hessians were driven from their quarters in disarray and were unable to form a coherent defense as General Washington and MG Sullivan immediately pressed the infantry attack under the surprise of the artillery attack.

This tight coordination of artillery and infantry was the maneuver element of the attack and it worked exactly as planned.  The Hessians were unable to form a coherent defensive under the artillery attack and no sooner were the artillery fires shifted to other targets than the Continentials were among them killing them and driving them out of the town by force of arms.

The Hessians retreated to an apple orchard southeast of Trenton where they surrendered.

The Hessians suffered casualties of 20 killed (including Colonel Rahl one of their commanders), 100 wounded and 1,000 captured.  The ultimate disposition of the Hessian prisoners in America is an interesting chapter in our history as many of them eventually were involved in the settling of Ohio.  A story for another time.

The British 16th Light Dragoons mounted up and took off at the first shot.  They escaped and did not figure in the fighting at all.  The benefit of being in the cavalry being the ability to take off when the going gets tough.

The Americans suffered 4 wounded and 2 men frozen to death.  Two men frozen to death!  This is dedication, loyalty and blood that fertilized the American tree of freedom.  Men froze to their death in service to our Nation.

The Battle of Trenton has a couple of other subsequent interesting twists and turns as the British attempted to attack thereafter from Princeton and Washington successfully passed behind them and captured their headquarters at Princeton.  But for our discussion, we have had enough to learn our lessons for today.

The men and the impact on morale

The Continental Army was made up of a handful of regulars and State militias who had signed up for a year of service subject to re-enlistment.  The militias at the Battle of Trenton included 2,400 men from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

The Pennsylvania militia was armed with long rifles and their marksmanship was particularly effective.  They could shoot and hit what they aimed at — basic soldiering expertise.

In addition to hauling the artillery and thereby being able to direct effective fire upon the Hessians, Washington had achieved numerical superiority at the point of the sword.

His attacking Continentals were able to muster a 2:1 advantage at the point of the attack.  A very important lesson — an army may be numerically inferior in the main but it can achieve numerical superiority and thus fire superiority at the point of attack.  This is the science of soldiering.

The men, of course, were bolstered in their morale by their victory and subsequent capture of Princeton.

Rightfully so, as they had flawlessly executed a very complex plan, completely destroyed a meaningful enemy force, evaporated the myth of Hessian and British invincibility and had gained great respect for the generalship of George Washington and his other Generals.

At the Battle of Trenton were such notables as the Generals involved but also  two other future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

This success breathed confidence into others who would be leaders in the Revolution and in the birth of the United States of America.

Can you imagine why George Washington was our first President?  He was an effective crisis leader and very few men in the Colonies were his equal.  None in The Boss’s book.

Impact on history

The Boss thinks this battle was the pivot point from which it became plausible that the Revolution could succeed — not that it would but that it could.

It solidified the leadership reality and perception of General George Washington.

It rocked the British back on their heels and made them realize that they could lose the war and that the Americans could fight and win.

This was the moment of conception of our Nation and the identification of George Washington as its Father.


Crisis management requires careful introspective thought and planning.

Sometimes — not always — the resolution of a crisis may require audacity but it always requires a plan which contemplates the real complexity and is attentive to the details necessary to marshal success.

Crisis management must continue effectively regardless of the market conditions — even in a blinding storm.

Crisis management may uncover and expose great leaders.  One’s character is not reflected until sufficient friction is applied to reveal it

God bless America and thank you, General George Washington.  Thank you for your audacity and leadership and perseverance in the face of impossible obstacles.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know really?  I’m just a Big Red Car but I am an American Big Red Car!

2 thoughts on “George Washington — the ultimate crisis leader

  1. To me this is similar to the Stockdale Paradox, highlighted as an example of the Hedgehog Concept that Collins discusses. The best leaders are the ones who are completely pragmatic about the reality of their situation, they don’t sugar coat it, but they have an iron will to do whatever they have to in order to make it happen. Washington knew if he huddled his men in tents, which would be the easy decision, that would be the end of his campaign and the war. Stockdale understood the damage to the American war effort that would ensue if he ended up on tv as propaganda for the NVA, as well as the dismal situation the POWs faced without a leader. Both made what had to be gut wrenching decisions: to attack and disfigure oneself, because that is what it took to see it through.

    • .
      The Stockdale Paradox is an account of both personal courage and pragmatic and heroic leadership. It is a great concept to be mulled over by thoughtful people. It is not to be taken lightly.

      Adm Stockdale suffered an unfair and shallow response from journalists and the public when he ran for office as Ross Perot’s VP but he was an accomplished leader and a truly heroic leader. He won the Medal of Honor and several Silver Stars for both his heroism during captivity and his heroism while engaged in air operations against North Viet Nam.

      Nobody can touch Washington as the one person most responsible for the American victory and then refusing to be crowned King driving the emergence of a principled representative democratic republic.

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