Adapted from

What is fortitude? What does it look like in action in a leader? How does a person cultivate fortitude?

At the Battle of Princeton in 1777, an opening barrage of musket volleys from the Redcoats sent the Continental Army into a panic. As its ranks began to splinter, a lone general burst to the front on a galloping white charger. Riding high in the saddle under withering fire, George Washington circled to face his fearful troops and beseeched them to keep fighting. Then, according to one account, he reined in his horse and faced the enemy directly.

This split-second decision by the American commander, and the events that followed, are widely viewed as one of Washington’s finest moments—which is saying something. Even now, over 240 years later, it’s a timeless master class in leading by example.

Among the many flavors of contagious leadership behavior, only two have consistently produced superior results—and George Washington was the embodiment of both.

The first was a combination of seriousness, courage, tenacity and outsize effort—I’ll call it relentlessness. Ron Chernow’s vivid 2010 biography showed that when Washington pushed his troops to the limits of their endurance, he was always right beside them. Washington’s relentless nature colored everything he did—from riding his horses fast, even if he wasn’t in a hurry, to holding his soldiers to high moral standards.

Washington’s second leadership posture was ironclad emotional control: fortitude.

Throughout the war, he rarely used profanity. When officers committed acts of insubordination and incompetence, he tried to avoid berating them. And rather than threatening soldiers who declined to re-enlist, he spent hours among them appealing to their sense of honor.

In victory and defeat, Washington maintained his stoic composure. Again, it was Princeton that truly showed the depth of Washington’s emotional fortitude. After he’d rallied his army to victory, a teary aide approached him to express his relief that the general hadn’t been killed. Washington quietly took his hand and changed the subject.

George Washington wasn’t a fun boss. His stoicism didn’t endear him to everyone. Many officers found him cold and reserved and marveled that they’d never seen him smile.

Regulating emotion is exhausting. It also isolates leaders from their teams. But doing so almost never makes things worse. And during a crisis, a leader’s ability to bottle emotion is contagious, inspiring everyone to focus on the task. “Washington never appeared to so much advantage as in the hour of distress,” a colonial general wrote.

Leading others by relentless effort and emotional control demands immense personal sacrifices. The good news is that it doesn’t require exceptional talent. In the end, the source of Washington’s greatness was simple, even if it wasn’t easy. It was a function of the choices he made consistently, every day, in darkness or light.

“Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason.”