Imagine you are present during the cold, blustery and bleak winter of 1778 and fighting for the ideals of the American Revolution. The main Continental Army under George Washington is hunkered down in desolate Valley Forge after suffering a series of disastrous defeats including the British capture of Philadelphia forcing Washington’s boss, the Continental Congress to flee the city. In stark contrast to Washington’s losses, Patriot General Horatio Gates spectacularly vanquished an invading British army near the northern New York town of Saratoga. As a result, Washington began to hear growing whispers of an insurgency to replace him with Gates as the commander-in-chief, many of which were from officers and congressional members who supported Washington to his face.
Then a letter from an erstwhile Washington supporter arrives on Patrick Henry’s desk seeking his backing to oust Washington. At this time, Henry served as Virginia’s governor and actively aided Washington by procuring reinforcements, food, and supplies. Without hesitation, Henry forwards the letter to Washington, not responding to the sender. With firm evidence in hand of a growing conspiracy, Washington confronts his attackers and regains the solid support of both the officer corps and the Continental Congress. Demonstrating that Henry had “Washington’s back” and “walked the talk” respecting mutually expressed commitments, the two leaders enjoyed a lifelong partnership and friendship, even when they politically disagreed. After independence, the excellent Washington/Henry working relationship provided essential advocacy to overcome substantial, determined opposition to adopting the US Constitution during Virginia’s Constitutional Convention.
Patrick Henry’s response to receiving the conspiratorial letter provides an outstanding example for today’s leaders. If you say that you champion someone, you have to do that through “thick and thin” and be “straight with them” in the face of the normal business “ups and downs” and internal political controversies. Patrick Henry might be best known for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, but his most important contribution was his unwavering support of the commander-in-chief which enabled Washington to survive the dark days of Valley Forge, win the Revolution and set our country on a course to be a thriving republic.
While today, “walking the talk” and providing unwavering support might not yield such dramatic results, these traits are essential for all successful leaders. And to the contrary, failure to do so dooms leaders to the eventual disdain of their organizations and to the dustbin of history.