Trust: Three Key Lessons from General George Washington and Benedict Arnold

By Major General (Retired) Robert Ivany, Ph.D., Wednesday, November 03, 2021

As an unparalleled classroom for leadership, few locations rival the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The famous promontory jutting into the west bank of the Hudson River is rich in history and drama starring America’s most beloved and most reviled military leaders. Reminders of the Academy’s strong leadership culture are everywhere. “Duty, Honor, Country,” the values on which the culture rests are etched on the walls of the stately Cadet Chapel. Inscribed granite benches with words representing a key leadership virtue like “Courage” and “Integrity” dot the landscape. Adding their quiet presence to the echoes of the architecture, larger than life statues of prominent graduates such as Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, and Grant stand guard on the expansive green parade field simply called the Plain. In the center, George Washington, the epitome of “Duty, Honor, Country,” sits astride a noble steed silently gazing up the Hudson River.  Almost hidden from view is the former Arnold Redoubt, a fortification during the American Revolution, hastily renamed the Clinton Redoubt after Benedict Arnold’s traitorous attempt to surrender the West Point Defenses to the British.

Since graduating from the Academy in 1969 and serving 34 years in the U.S. Army, I have been fortunate to return to West Point many times to discuss leadership lessons with corporate executives through Thayer Leadership programs. West Point serves as the setting for an infamous betrayal of trust, and its key participants offer us valuable insights on how we can lead when faced with disloyalty or disenfranchisement within our own ranks.

George Washington ordered the construction of fortifications at West Point to prevent British ships from sailing up the Hudson River to separate New England from the rest of the American colonies. Washington’s compassion, courage, determination, and patience attest to his competence and character as a leader. Yet, his failure to anticipate the betrayal by one of his most trusted subordinates, Benedict Arnold, nearly doomed the American Revolution.

The Rise of Benedict Arnold

In 1775, Washington, then newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, selected Benedict Arnold to lead an invasion of Quebec, Canada. The invasion proved disastrous from beginning to end. The invading forces lacked sufficient numbers, funding, supplies, and armament. Hampered by deluges of rain followed by early snowfalls plus rampant illness and smallpox, Arnold kept his weakened troops on the offensive. When other options failed to capture the Quebec fortress, Arnold led a desperate night attack, which was decisively repelled. Arnold was seriously wounded in the assault, and a noticeable limp remained with him as a permanent reminder of the ill-fated campaign.

Despite the defeat, Arnold’s heroics captured the admiration of the Continental Congress, which promoted him to brigadier general. Washington, in particular, praised Arnold’s “ability and perseverance in the midst of difficulties.” Arnold continued to display impressive leadership ability by successfully repulsing a British naval invasion of New England from Canada. Under his leadership, a navy was built from scratch and inflicted such heavy losses on the much larger British forces that the enemy withdrew until the following year. Again, displaying personal bravery, uncommon skill, and fierce determination, Arnold’s fame soared. Congressmen cheered him for “saving the honor of the states.” Even the English foreign minister lauded him as “the most enterprising man among the rebels.”

Arnold achieved his most dramatic victory in upper New York in what became the turning point in the American Revolution. Barely able to mount his horse and suffering another wound, Arnold courageously exposed himself to enemy fire and rallied the fleeing Americans into a raging storm that swept aside the stunned British forces. The American victory at Saratoga led to an alliance with France that provided the revolutionaries with desperately needed funding, naval support, and troops.

Signs of Character Flaws

George Washington knew better than anyone just how critical Arnold was to the American cause. When Arnold turned down his offer to lead a wing of the Continental Army and instead asked for command of the West Point Defenses, Washington reluctantly granted his request. In doing so, he chose to ignore disquieting signs of his favorite commander’s character flaws. Despite his fame as “America’s Hannibal”, Arnold displayed an arrogance, greed, and jealousy that rankled his peers and put him at odds with local officials.

Most strikingly, a military court-martial had found Arnold guilty of “imprudent and improper conduct” while serving as the military governor of Philadelphia and sentenced him for a reprimand from Washington. Washington realized that the charges, in part, were politically motivated; he, however, forcibly responded by issuing a public reprimand, calling Arnold’s actions “peculiarly reprehensible.” Writing privately to Arnold, Washington further chastised his famous subordinate, “Even the shadow of a fault tarnishes the luster of our achievements, I reprimand you for having forgotten that, in proportion as you rendered yourself formidable to our enemies, you should have been guarded and temperate in your deportment to your fellow citizens.” (Palmer, D. 2010. George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. Page 321). For Arnold, who had been brooding for years over a number of perceived slights, the reprimand dealt a final devastating blow to his self-serving sense of honor. He decided to change sides because of his bitter disappointment with Congress over rank, privileges, and his desire for money in addition to the court-martial. Arnold doubled his nascent overtures to the British demanding money, pension, and command of Loyalist forces in exchange for weakening the West Point Defenses, providing a flow of intelligence, and even offering to assist in the British capture of General Washington. After the British agreed to pay Arnold a hefty sum of money, he conspired in secret to deliver West Point to the opposing forces. When his key conspirator was captured, Arnold was forced to flee to safety aboard a British ship located downstream from West Point.

Three Key Lessons on Trust

Betrayal by a trusted subordinate can devastate a leader. In my discussions with executives, I ask them how they could avoid finding themselves in a situation similar to George Washington’s and how they would react in the face of a betrayal. Despite his unique circumstances, Washington’s actions and response offer us three key lessons before a potential confrontation from our own Benedict Arnold.

1. The first lesson is the recognition that all leaders have “blind spots.” Such a lack of awareness in our behavior or judgment masks the true impact of trends, events, or an individual’s actions. To avoid blind spots, a mentor or coach is invaluable. Removed from the dynamics of a complex issue and enjoying the trust of a leader, an effective mentor or coach can offer a contrasting perspective.

Mentoring today enjoys an enthusiastic acceptance by corporations, not for profits, and universities. A steady stream of articles and research report on the benefits of mentoring and ways to improve mentoring practices. In the article, “Why your Mentoring Program Isn’t Working” published in the Harvard Business Review, July 17, 2020, issue, it stated that over 70% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. Another article in the same publication, “Making Mentorship a Team Effort”, March 17, 2020, urged aspiring leaders to avail themselves of several mentors each with a specific set of competencies. As I reflect on my careers, I realize I made better decisions when I had a mentor. The benefit of a sounding board and sage advice gave me needed respite and time to consider alternatives before making a decision. I unhesitatingly urge future leaders to build a team of mentors early in their careers.

Sound decision making requires numerous attributes and skills. So much so that senior corporate leaders willingly invest in high potential men and women by hiring professional coaches. According to a research report, “Life Coaches in the US, 2003-2026, updated August 30, 2020” by IBIS World, there are 17,768 life coaches in the US. It has become a fast-growing industry. The advice of a coach or the insights of a mentor cannot guarantee a leader will anticipate a Benedict Arnold. Their input, however, will encourage executives in the development of self-awareness and open mindedness, which will serve them well in avoiding the blind spots of leadership.

2. The second lesson is the mandate to hire and promote for both competence AND character. A failure of competence can damage an organization’s financial stability, but a loss of character, the ethical or moral quality distinctive to an organization, will carry with it long-lasting and potentially disastrous consequences. An organization will falter, and eventually fail, if it lacks the strength of ethical and moral underpinnings. Building and sustaining a team with character demands a more comprehensive commitment than focusing on competence. Hiring for competence is typically a straightforward process. An applicant can show educational degrees, list of positions held, professional certificates, and recommendations. Hiring for character, however, requires a willingness to invest in a lengthier hiring process, led by experts in the human resources field.

In addition to hiring for character, corporate leaders have increasingly invested in the development of their internal leaders. The 360-degree assessment, a systematic collection of feedback from peers, direct reports, and superiors provides an empathetic senior executive the knowledge to improve the organization’s leadership capability and eliminate toxic leaders.

One organization that values leadership, perhaps more than any other- the U.S. Army - has harnessed the 360-degree assessment to take an innovative step in the selection of men and women for senior leadership positions. With the lives of their soldiers at stake in peace and in war, Army leaders have a sacred responsibility to lead with competence and character. In an effort to identify the best potential leaders, the Army recently revamped its process for the selection of officers for battalion command positions. Battalion commanders have particularly key roles in the chain of command; they command approximately 400 soldiers and have a major impact on combat readiness and on the career decisions of their personnel. After deliberate study, the Army added to its legacy selection practice that consisted of a review by a board of superiors of written performance evaluations of potential commanders. It instituted an intensive 4-day, in-person assessment, the Battalion Command Assessment Program or BCAP.

The BCAP brings potential commanders to a central location for a series of assessments. The process consists of physical testing, an in-depth interview by an operational psychologist, review of writing and speaking skills, and psychological testing and observation in a challenging team exercise. At the conclusion of the process, each applicant meets in a double-blind setting with a board of senior officers. The board has the benefit of the results of recent assessments, as well as previously conducted 360-degree feedback from the applicants’ peers and subordinates. On the basis of this process, the board recommends whether an applicant is deemed ready for command or delayed by a year for further consideration.

The BCAP is in its second year. The Army’s Talent Management Task Force published an article, “Army releases names of officers selected for battalion command” on February 1, 2021, in which it highlighted that “28% of the 424 officers who had been originally selected as principals for command under the legacy system were replaced. Some voluntarily dropped out of consideration while others were deemed not ready for command and deferred for a year.” Participating officers have praised the new system so favorably that the Army expanded the process to a wider circle of command positions despite the significant overhead that the process entails. In addition to assessment, all candidates, to include those who were not chosen for command, were offered a series of coaching sessions by a professional coach. Few corporations can afford replicating the Army’s sweeping new procedure. They can, however, integrate innovative practices into their leadership development and promotion policies.

3. The third, and last, lesson from General Washington and his experience with Benedict Arnold, is the necessity for leaders facing a betrayal to maintain their composure and remain focused on the organization’s mission. “Arnold has betrayed us! Who can we trust now?” exclaimed Washington on discovering his subordinate’s treason. Infuriated but steadfast, he took immediate steps to respond to the crisis while never losing sight of his mission to drive the British from the colonies. He reinforced the West Point fortifications, initiated a court martial of Major John Andre, Arnold’s British co-conspirator, and launched an investigation into others associated with Arnold.

Aware that he was setting an example for those contemplating similar acts, he relentlessly pursued Arnold by offering to exchange Andre for him and by ordering a covert, but unsuccessful, operation to seize the traitor. After Andre’s conviction, Washington quickly had him hung as a spy, but he never allowed his anger to overcome his character. He showed compassion for Arnold’s family, allowing them to rejoin him in New York and pardoned others who were involved.

Final Thoughts

Today’s leaders realize that a trusted subordinate may shock them by betraying their trust and confidence. They can avoid a potential crisis and use the event to lead by example. Arnold’s betrayal stunned Washington but never lost his self-confidence or compromised his values. He demonstrated the calmness and courage that led his compatriots to elect him as the first president of the United States.

Reflection on our nation’s military leaders, forged in the heat of battle, offers us valuable insights and a deep appreciation of their achievements. We can become a more empathetic, effective, and enterprising leader by learning from those like Washington whose monuments grace The Plain at West Point.

Major General Robert Ivany

ExpertiseLeadership development, introduction of the after-action review process, leadership lessons from President Ronald Reagan ExperienceAfter 13 years as president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Bob now serves as the president emeritus. He came to Houston after retiring as a major general with 34 years of service to... Read More +

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Key To The Northern Country: The Hudson River Valley in the American Revolution
Edited By Colonel (Retired) James M. Johnson, Ph.D.