Tuesday, December 10, 2013

George Washington Gets a 360

Eric Schultz

The annual review can be an uncomfortable event, but a 360-Degree Performance Review (the “360”) is one of the more harrowing proceedings that can befall a professional, business or academic. In a 360 you are asked to grade yourself against a series of attributes, everything from ethics to leadership to
Gilbert Stuart's 1797 portrait of George Washington
listening skills and coaching. Then, everyone in your “ecosystem” gets a crack at you, sometimes anonymously. This means your boss, often your boss’s boss or peers, your own peers and subordinates, and then some sampling of customers and vendors. Scores are averaged, and then you’re ready (or not) to talk with your boss about why you think your “collaboration with others” is an “8” while the 360 consensus shows it’s a “4.”

A good 360—and there is such a thing, when done well—will reinforce your positives and give you additional incentive to fix the things you generally knew were broken anyway. A traumatic 360, however, can disclose huge “holes” in your game, which quite often turn out to be the very things that are keeping you from being effective, or promoted. 360s are not done every year but, like a colonoscopy (not to put too fine a point on it), are appropriate for the occasional gut-check.

A month ago I was asked to meet with a group of senior executives who were about to receive the results of their first 360. This was a strong group who already knew themselves well, but there couldn’t help but be some anxiety. I was asked to talk specifically about my experiences with the tool—I’d been through a few—and try to put the practice in context as just another device that managers use to improve. My 360s were traumatic but positive: I learned that I never shined my shoes (at one extreme), that I was perceived as giving up too quickly on managers who failed (a gaping blind-spot in my game that I tried hard to repair), and that I should “be myself, but not too much myself”—the best piece of advice I ever got, and one I occasionally impart to others.

As I was preparing for my presentation, I was also reading Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, and was positively struck by the chapter on George Washington.  The most enigmatic of the Founding Fathers, Washington seemed to me, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful description, as having been “born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.” In other words, what could possibly be wrong with the greatest leader in American history? Yet, as I read through the chapter and saw the criticism mount, I began to wonder: What if Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others had reviewed Washington? What would George Washington’s 360 look like?

And more to the point for my audience, how might he have responded to it?

The positives are easy: Washington epitomized everything the Revolutionary generation prized in its leaders. He was internationally recognized as a man of character and virtue. He was known to have inordinate modesty and be a great listener (with “the gift of silence”). He actively sought advice, especially as he tried to define the role of the president. Unlike Jefferson, Washington was a talented general manager of his plantation. He also knew what he did not know, working closely with Jefferson and Knox on issues, but leaving Hamilton to wrestle with the economy. In all, Washington was considered extraordinarily gallant and dignified. When as a victorious general he presented his sword to Congress and retired to Mt. Vernon, Washington stunned the European world, which assumed he would maintain his army and take over the country. This was truly the sign of a classical hero, to act in ways ordinary men did not. (I could not help but compare him these past few days to Nelson Mandela, who also stunned the world by acting unlike an ordinary man.)

Yet, this is a 360, and everyone gets their crack. Some believed Washington’s hesitancy was shyness, not characteristic of greatness. John Adams, known perhaps for his lack of shyness, found Washington to be a little over the top, “the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” He could feel the myth forming before his eyes, writing, “And then Franklin smote the ground and up rose George Washington, fully dressed and astride a horse! Then the three of them, Franklin, Washington and the HORSE, proceeded to win the entire revolution single-handedly!”

Jefferson found his boss, for all of his leadership skills, to be far too thin-skinned, taking attacks to heart “more than any person I ever yet met with.” Worse still, Jefferson did not find Washington to be as intellectually gifted as those around him, saying "His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order.” Ouch.

And then there was Hamilton, 5’7” and 26 years old with a hair-trigger temper (and twelve duels to prove it).  Being aide-de-camp to the 6’2”, 45-year-old supreme commander didn’t slow Hamilton down. Early in 1781 Washington expressed some anger at Hamilton’s ten-minute delay in presenting himself, saying ever-so-mildly, “I must tell you Sir that you treat me with disrespect.” Hamilton resigned on the spot. Washington had to work very hard to patch things up, which he eventually did. Still, it would not surprise Washington to find on his 360 the criticism that he was disrespectful of subordinates.

Last came the political attacks, epitomized in the mid-1790s by none other than Thomas Paine, who accused Washington of “cold and unmilitary conduct” during the Revolution. “You slept away your time in the field, till the finances of the country were completely exhausted, and you have but little share in the glory of the final event.” He went on to charge Washington with ingratitude, vanity, and a character that was “chameleon-colored.”

Below is a quick summary of Washington’s 360.

What to make of this? Needless to say, we had a fascinating discussion, arriving at a few tentative conclusions. And, since it is coming up on the season of reviews for all of us, I share them with you here:

1. If the greatest leader in American history could be bluntly criticized by those around him, you will be too. There’s no escape, so don’t even try.

2. Note the positives. Celebrate your strengths.

3. Embrace the negatives. Make something good of every single criticism. “Disrespectful of subordinates?” Undoubtedly Washington would have known who wrote that. He easily could have dismissed it. What he appeared to do, however, was recognize that fiery Alexander needed special mentoring and lots of tender loving care. This Washington provided, and Hamilton was undoubtedly better because of his boss.

When George Washington was described “in his 360” as shy, a good actor and too thin-skinned, he might well have agreed. Hopefully—as I was twenty years ago—our first president would have been blessed with a very perceptive human resources director who might pull him aside and sum it up simply: “George, be yourself—just not too much yourself.”

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