The George Washington Leadership Institute at Mount Vernon’s Joseph F. Stoltz on how to teach leadership and learn from other leaders at the same time.
This interview is part of Visit Alexandria’s series, Leadership Insights During COVID-19: How 7 Alexandria Leaders Navigated a Global Crisis. Read more interviews in this series here. The George Washington Leadership Institute is a member of The Leadership Collection at Alexandria™:
Joseph F. Stoltz III, PhD
Director of Leadership Programs, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at the George Washington Leadership Institute at Mount Vernon
Q: What leadership principles did you practice that led you to where you are in your professional career?
A: My guiding principle, and one that I’m happy to say George Washington shared, is to always try to assume I’m not the smartest person in the room. Consciously practicing intellectual humility is a great way to hear and learn from a variety of opinions, life experiences and backgrounds. While, obviously, the diversity of opinions Washington heard from were limited in many ways, I’ve tried to learn from that myself and seek out even more opinions than my first instinct might say are necessary.
Q: When you were a child, what did you dream of being as an adult? Did you always want to be in a leadership role?
A: What I wanted to be as a child—heck, what I still want to be—was a starship captain. So, in that sense, yes, I always wanted to be in a leadership role. I “settled” for being a military historian and professor at West Point for a bit before Mount Vernon offered me a job. I now get to work with leaders from across the corporate, government and military spheres. It’s a great opportunity to teach about leadership while also getting the chance to learn from other leaders at the same time.
Q: What principles did you follow to lead your team, stakeholders, clients and members during the pandemic to keep them engaged, motivated and feeling secure?
A: I’m not going to lie; it has been a struggle. However, I tried to take a page from George Washington and just be honest with the people that work with me. I don’t mean this in some Washington “cannot tell a lie” way, but one of the things he emphasized to his officers was for them to be honest with their soldiers. He tried to be frank with Congress and his troops. If the war wasn’t going well, tell them the odds. If there was no food or money available, be up front about it. We know from the documentary record that the soldiers appreciated that honesty, and that the Continental Army leadership treating the soldiers like adults is part of why it had one of the lowest desertion rates of any army in the 18th century despite being one of the most underfed and underpaid. Honesty matters.
Q: What new skills and lessons did you learn during the pandemic? What will you implement as we move toward recovery?
A: I’d like to think my improved golf swing will not go to waste in terms of future networking opportunities. I also think I have had to learn to be more patient. Sometimes in our programs we have had people comment that Washington dealt with a different information environment than we have in the 21st century, because now information comes at us so fast. But the pandemic has shown that that is not always the case and that many organizations and leaders may have overemphasized rapid decision-making with real-time data. Consequently, when they had to deal with an environment where you had to make decisions in the face of prolonged unknowns, they and their teams were frustrated. I think in that respect, the 18th century has quite a bit to teach us.
Q: Benjamin Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.” Is there a certain historical leader or phrase/quote/mantra that you relate to?
A: Since I’m more or less contractually obligated to go with something George Washington-related, I’m going to go with “Exitus Acta Probat.” It’s from the Washington family coat of arms and basically means, “The outcome is the test of the act.” I think it’s a phrase he thought of a lot that both comforted and pained him at times. In terms of public life and policy, he almost always spoke of the United States as an “experiment” and wondered it if could pull off being a republic and one worthy of emulation. In his personal life, I think the family motto came to haunt him as he struggled more and more in his later years with the question of slavery. His growing self-doubt about his actions and inactions regarding slavery seems to be part of why he starts to refuse to take communion. It was the outcome reflecting the test of his acts.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style, and what did you have to amend during the pandemic crisis?
A: I am normally a big fan of in-person meetings and going into the office. So, for me, a pandemic has been…less than ideal. That has had to be my biggest change. I like to have my work life and home life separated and to have those so closely intertwined, along with my wife’s work life smashed in for good measure, definitely required some “self-care.” We don’t have kids, and I just have to take this moment to say how much respect I have for parents that have been navigating the pandemic with kids. You all have been a source of inspiration for me!
Q: How did you personally recharge and let go of stress?
A: I have made a lot of use of the driving range at East Potomac Golf Course. It was a chance to get outside where the Zoom meeting couldn’t get to me (okay, it technically could, but that’s an actual nightmare I had). I had to clear my mind to hit the ball cleanly, and could take a step back to stare at the ball, load all of my stress into it and then step forward and send it 200 yards away from me. Then I could pull another ball over, load up the next thing that had stressed me out that day and repeat. The workers that have kept public facilities like East Potomac open throughout the pandemic are well and truly “essential” and deserve to be treated and compensated as such. I hope when all of this is over there is an opportunity to truly thank them.