A Leader’s Call for Civility and Decency
Enlarged views, temperate consultations, and wise measures make up an executive's vision
“…the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.” — George Washington, 1796
Today marks the quadrennial tradition in America when the President of the United States is sworn into office.
The job is easily the most serious and onerous one in the world; the salary is a pittance compared to the responsibilities the officeholder assumes.
All eyes are on the president on that day. All ears, too. For it has been a tradition—since our very first president—that the Commander-in-Chief delivers an inaugural address.
When George Washington accepted the presidency, he not only set the tone for future holders of that office, but he also had an opportunity to demonstrate to his country what his principles were.
“As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” — George Washington to James Madison, 1789
Washington was a man who understood the power of symbols and appearances. He knew everything communicates. And the first inauguration of the president of a newly-formed country was the perfect vehicle for communicating.
The Constitution didn’t call for an inaugural address. But Washington, a leader of men, knew the power of the spoken word to stir men’s souls.
The morning of April 30, 1789 dawned bright and sunny in New York City. The weather that day was to be a comfortable 59 degrees—perfect spring weather for the outdoor ceremony planned for that day.
Washington, who was meticulous in his attire, was notorious for dressing in either his military uniform or the traditional dress of a British gentleman. Noting that “we have already been too long subject to British prejudices,” he instead chose a brown suit made from cloth woven in Hartford, Connecticut: a signal that he would support American industry.
As he walked out onto the balcony of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets in New York City a little after noon, George Washington witnessed a roar arise from the crowd below. He and they were acutely aware that the ceremony they were about to witness was not one of secret rites and rituals; the open-air atmosphere belied the transparency and universality of the event.
After taking his oath of office, Washington stepped forward to deliver his address. From the very opening, he demonstrated his legendary humility:
“[T]he magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
He acknowledged the great honor while noting his hesitance to consider himself worthy of that honor. This humility was not a ploy; it was vintage Washington. When placed next to his towering achievements in the American Revolution, this modesty was authentic and endearing.
On Inauguration Day, his “demeanor was stately, modest, and deeply affecting; he clapped one hand to his heart and bowed several times to the crowd…Thanks to his simple dignity, integrity, and unrivaled sacrifices for his country, Washington’s conquest of the people was complete.” (Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life, p. 567)
Those attributes not only carried the day and foretold Washington’s time in office, setting an example for other presidents yet to come:
Dignity. Integrity. Sacrifice.
The rest of his speech was a blank canvas on which Washington painted. He decided to focus on broad vision and strategy, rather than on specific policies. Given that the United States of America and its newly-formed government was under the scrutiny of the world and that its citizenry was comprised of regional factions, Washington needed to emphasize unity:
“I behold the surest pledges, that as on one side, no local prejudices, or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests: so, on another, that the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; and the pre-eminence of a free Government, be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its Citizens, and command the respect of the world.”
“…there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”
Recognizing that the role and responsibilities he was about to undertake was more than any one man could accept, in his closing line, Washington prayed that “divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”
We’re at a critical moment in our country’s history where we need a leader who can show breadth of vision, receive expert counsel and advice, and make informed decisions on behalf of the citizens while charting a course for unity.
It’s the same kind of leadership one might expect the CEO of any company, and how these plans are communicated — especially at the outset — can determine the difference between success and failure of an executive.
25 Examples of Civility and Decent Behavior
George Washington had only seven or eight years of school; his father died when he was eleven, so he had to work. Given his place in the Virginia legislature and later in the Continental Congress, he was self-conscious about his lack of education—particularly when his peers were classically educated in Greek and Latin, and had attended college.
But Washington kept something with him that guided his thoughts and deeds since he was a young man. As was the custom of young men of the day, by the time he was 16 years old, George Washington had copied 110 maxims for proper behavior from a text called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation that dated back to Jesuit scholars in 1595.
Many of the concepts are timeless and still apply to civil society today—they are matters of deference and politeness. Leaders who wish to impart a positive example through their own behavior should take note.
These are some of the most relevant and significant that leaders might still keep in mind today.
1st: Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present. [Treat everyone with respect.]
6th: Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
18th: Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
22nd: Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
35th: Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive. [When you speak, keep it brief.]
40th: Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty. [Do not argue with your superior. Submit your ideas with humility.]
44th: When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well blame not him that did it. [When a person does his best and fails, do not criticize him.]
45th: Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, presently or at some other time in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no sign of choler but do it with all sweetness and mildness. [When you must give advice or criticism, consider the timing, whether it should be given in public or private, the manner and above all be gentle.]
46th: Take all admonitions thankfully in what time or place soever given, but afterwards not being culpable take a time and place convenient to let him know it that gave them. [If you are corrected, take it without argument. If you were wrongly judged, correct it later.]
47th: Mock not nor jest at any thing of Importance; break no jest that are sharp, biting, and if you deliver any thing witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself. [Do not make fun of anything important to others.]
48th: Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than precepts. [If you criticize someone else of something, make sure you are not guilty of it yourself. Actions speak louder than words.]
50th: Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. [Do not be quick to believe bad reports about others.]
56th: Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company. [You’re judged by the company you keep.]
58th: Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature: And in all causes of passion admit reason to govern. [Always allow reason to govern your actions.]
59th: Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors. [Never break the rules in front of subordinates.]
63rd: A man ought not to value himself of his achievements, or rare qualities of wit, much less of his riches virtue or kindred. [A person should not overly value their own accomplishments.]
65th: Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion. [Do not insult anyone, even if you are joking.]
69th: If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and be not obstinate in your own opinion, in things indifferent be of the major side. [If two people disagree, do not take one side or the other. Be flexible in your own opinions and when you don't care, take the majority opinion.]
70th: Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to parents masters and superiors. [Do not correct others when it is not your place to do so.]
73rd: Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your words too hastily but orderly and distinctly.
74th: When another speaks be attentive yourself, and disturb not the audience. If any hesitate in his words, help him not nor prompt him without desired. Interrupt him not, nor answer him till his speech be ended.
79th: Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things you have heard name not your author; always a secret discover not. [Don’t be quick to talk about something when you don’t have all the facts.]
82nd: Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise. [Don’t start what you can’t finish. Keep your promises.]
89th: Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust. [Do not speak badly of those who are not present.]
110th: Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. [Don’t allow yourself to become jaded, cynical, or calloused.]
Perhaps it’s worth rereading Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.
The leaders we admire and the leaders we should become ought to model decency. Always.
One Timely Thing…
Before you go, I wanted to share one present-day inaugural highlight with you, from a recent project.
Last month, we received an email from the Biden Inaugural Committee, asking for some help with engagement around the Inauguration.
During the consultation, we made some strategic recommendations, including working with historians (oh, you didn’t know Historian Twitter was a thing?) to tell the stories of past inaugurations, as a way to frame the current one.
And last Friday, I saw this kick off:
We’re honored to have contributed to the digital communications plan for the Biden Inauguration at this historic moment.
And if you're interested in having Scott Monty Strategies involved in your strategic communications or executive communications efforts, please feel free to be in touch at inquiries @ scottmonty.com.
I’ll be back on Friday with some examples of how other presidential inaugural speeches addressed issues in the midst of a crisis. I hope you’re signed up for those exclusive subscriber-only updates.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.