Through the Gate

through the gateHe was 21 years old. On the night of July 3, 1754 he walked through this gate at Fort Necessity to discuss negotiation terms with the French leader of the hostile forces surrounding his tiny makeshift military post. On the bottom of his boots was a mixture of mud and blood.

As we’ve seen in the brief videos, Washington signed a document that ended the siege. He didn’t realize the document contained a confession of having “assassinated” the brother of the French commander. He also didn’t understand that he was essentially confessing to signing the agreement in exchange for not becoming a prisoner.

Likewise, you have heard me explain that a chain of three languages marked the negotiations: French to Dutch to English and back again, with a smattering of Indian languages thrown in for good measure. Washington spoke only English and was ignorant of his interpreter’s limited ability to convert his native Dutch into either French or English.

That was the imperfect information I referenced in the videos. It is also the basis for me to ask you this: when was the last time you as a leader had to grapple with imperfect information? What happened?

Let’s look more closely at Washington in order to get more insights into your own individual, current-day response.

Washington’s language problem was the most obvious issue but it was far from the only issue. The objective fact of language difficulties was intensified by other factors, some of which Washington could have modified or tempered. He didn’t, however, and a bad condition became infinitely worse. And that’s what I think you should take away for yourself from the discussion below.

Washington was under tremendous stress on the night of July 3-4, 1754. Little sleep, horrible sights of dead and sick and wounded, worries over how or whether to alter his orders from his governor, and much more. The physical surroundings of candlelight, flickering and dim, complicated the possibility of studying the draft document (even in a foreign language). In addition, he had scant experience to draw upon. This was his first major military command crisis. He was likely eager to believe the word of his French counterpart—whom Washington would have perceived as a fellow gentleman-officer—as a way of comforting himself in an alien situation. Furthermore, he had already rejected advice from Indian leaders and wasn’t in any mood to seek out advice now, regardless of whether or not it was at hand. Add it all up, and you’ve got a basic flaw (language limitations) multiplied into an enormous barrier.

Not surprisingly, then, things turned out badly for Washington.

So let’s re-ask the question: have you had a recent experience of working with imperfect information and, critically, have you turned the imperfect into the impossible by stacking other problems on top of it?

How would you prevent it next time?

This is the valuable lesson of George Washington at Fort Necessity.