Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: What Are the Qualities of a Good Military Leader?


The Lesson


Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (battle of Trenton).

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (battle of Trenton).

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

George Washington's early military career (1754–1758)—during the Seven Years' War—was not uniformly successful. In his first battle, he and his men were ambushed and forced to surrender Fort Necessity on the Pennsylvania frontier. Washington's reputation for leadership and courage was based on his actions in another defeat at the hands of the French. In that battle, at Fort Duquesne (1755, often called the "Battle of the Wilderness" or "Braddock's Defeat"), Washington had two horses shot from under him and eventually had to assume command from the mortally wounded General Edward Braddock. Washington led the surviving British and Colonial soldiers on a successful retreat.

Later (1775–1783), Washington would lead the Patriots to a surprising victory over Great Britain, "the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the Western world. … Although he lost most of his battles with the British, year after year he held his ragtag, hungry army together"—from the EDSITEment resource The American President.

What combination of experience, strategy, and personal characteristics enabled Washington to succeed as a military leader?

Guiding Questions

  • What qualities made George Washington an effective military leader?
  • How were the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief affected by conditions during the Revolutionary War?

Learning Objectives

  • List qualities they believe made George Washington an effective military leader.
  • List some practical lessons Washington may have learned from his early military experiences.
  • Discuss some difficulties Washington faced as Commander-in-Chief.
  • Discuss how Washington responded to the difficulties he faced as the leader of the Continental Army.
  • Give examples of Washington's leadership during one or more Revolutionary War battles.
  • Summarize briefly the Newburgh Conspiracy.
  • Describe Washington's response to the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Washington's Early Military Career

Share with the class a brief summary of Washington's early military career with the Virginia Regiment, starting in 1753, such as the account in Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President. Begin reading at the words "Lawrence had commanded a local militia" and end with the words "the farm he had inherited from his half-brother Lawrence." (For a more detailed account of Washington's early military career read George Washington: Making of a Military Leader.) After students have read these documents, use the following discussion questions to guide their review of the material:

  • In Washington's early military career, up to his first retirement in 1758, was he beginning to show the leadership qualities that would serve him well later?
  • What mistakes did Washington make?
  • What experiences did Washington have that were likely to be useful later?
  • What successes and failures did Washington have?
  • What did Washington appear to have learned already from his successes and failures?

Now read with the class the letter from the 1st Virginia Regiment to George Washington, December 31, 1758, given to Washington upon his retirement from military service. If desired, read instead the Address of the Officers of the Virginia Regiment Excerpt.

  • What qualities of Washington's leadership does the letter cite as particularly commendable?
  • Which of the qualities cited match an item on Socrates' list?
  • Are the students convinced that the men signing the petition are sincere or do the students think they were simply flattering Washington? What do the students rely on as the basis for their position?
Activity 2. What Makes a Good Military Leader?

… tactics … is only a small part of generalship. For a general must also be capable of furnishing military equipment and providing supplies for the men; he must be resourceful, active, careful, hardy and quick-witted; he must be both gentle and brutal, at once straightforward and designing, capable of both caution and surprise, lavish and rapacious, generous and mean, skilful in defense and attack; and there are many other qualifications, some natural, some acquired, that are necessary to one who would succeed as a general.
—Attributed to Socrates in The Memorabilia (3.1.5–3.1.6) by Xenophon on the EDSITEment resource The Perseus Digital Library

The essay Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President describes Washington's earliest military experiences as "disastrous." He went on to modest success—at best—before he retired in 1758. Yet, the same article states that though Washington hesitated to accept the commission as Commander-in-Chief because of "the misadventures against the French and Native Americans," he was chosen by the Continental Congress to be Commander-in-Chief because the "leadership and charisma of the tall, quiet, stately Virginian was unsurpassed." Attempting to resolve this apparent disconnect is the impetus behind this lesson. Defining or proving "leadership and charisma" is difficult. But like so many other things, when you see it, you know it. This lesson asks, "Did Washington's early military career prepare him for the role of Commander-in-Chief?" (NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, all resources used in this lesson are from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.) Review with students the qualities listed on the charts in the handout "The Qualities of a Good Military Leader According to Socrates" on pages 1–4 of the Master PDF. Which qualities are likely to be learned through military training or experience? Which are purely personal qualities a person either has or does not have? Do the students agree with the list? Allow them to add to or subtract from the chart now and as you proceed through the unit.

Activity 3. General Washington

If the students require background on the events leading to the American Revolution and Washington's commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, share with the class relevant information from the class text or another source, such as "The Seeds of Revolution" section of Life Before the Presidency on the EDSITEment resource The American President.

Read with the class Washington's Commission.

  • What qualities of Washington does the document cite?
  • What specific instructions are given to Washington?
  • What leadership qualities will be required to fulfill those instructions? Point out the last paragraph that establishes the principle of civilian control over the military.

Read together Washington Accepting His Commission. What personal qualities do Washington's words demonstrate? In what way? (NOTE: Congress made sure of Washington Accepting His Commission [June 1775] before officially issuing Washington's Commission and Washington's Instructions. This explains how he could have accepted the commission before it was issued officially on June 17, 1775. However, here students will read the documents in the more logical order.)

Finally, read together Washington's Instructions.

  • What was Washington asked to do?
  • What leadership qualities were required to accomplish the tasks?
  • Do the instructions indicate trust in or mistrust of Washington's leadership? In what way?


Have students complete the first chart—"George Washington's Early Military Experience"— in the handout "The Qualities of a Good Military Leader According to Socrates" on page 1 of the Master PDF. Discuss the results. What signs were there in his early career that Washington would become an effective military leader? In what ways did he show in his military career up to 1758 that he was learning from experience?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources