No topic will be more bandied about in the month before the November elections than ''presidential leadership,'' which received high powered rhetorical vollies during the spring primaries. Both the Democratic and Republican parties would do well to consult a sober analyst on the subject, George Washington, although the first president's expertise is rarely noted.
In an era when the time clock and rapid pace of city living were nonexistent, Washington perceived that his administration's success was dependent upon the ability to plan, organize, staff, direct, and control - leadership buzzwords that didn't come of age until the post-World War II period.
Planning came readily to GW, perhaps as a result of his background as a Virginia planter and military man. Well before the new federal government in 1789 took form, Washington requested information from each of the department heads of the old Confederation government. And he wanted a response in ''clear'' prose. Similarly, before each session of Congress the President solicited ideas and reactions from his staff in order to avoid elements of surprise.
Organization and staffing went hand in hand. Nothing was worse in government, Washington believed, or in any other institution, for that matter, than to start off on the wrong foot. ''It will be much easier,'' he wrote in May 1789, ''to commence the administration, upon a well adjusted system, built on tenable grounds, than to correct errors or alter inconveniences after they shall have been confirmed by habit.'' For this reason, Washington became a master of details, including the backgrounds of minor appointees, and he expected his subordinates to keep him informed on matters.
As for the expectations of his staff, Washington was a taskmaster. He wrote nasty letters to officeholders who failed to do their work with dispatch, suggesting that they shape up or ship out. And note how artfully he could present expectations of performance to his highest officials: ''Let me, in a friendly way, impress the following maxims upon the Executive Officers. In all important matters, to deliberate maturely, but to execute promptly and vigorously. And not to put things off until the Morrow which can be done, and require to be done to day. Without an adherence to these rules, business never will be well done, or done in an easy manner; but will always be in arrear, with one thing treading upon the heels of another.''
Directing for Washington was often a combination of form and substance. He made certain that he conducted himself presidentially, treating individuals in an equal manner and refraining from warm handshakes and backslapping. According to one visitor in 1795, ''the appearance of General Washington harmonized in a singular manner with the dignity and modesty of his public life. So completely did he look the great and good man he really was, that I felt rather respect than awe in his presence, and experienced neither the surprise nor disappointment with which a personal introduction to distinguished individuals is often accompanied....''
In his substantive directing, Washington solicited ideas from a wide variety of individuals before deciding on a course of action. Not surprisingly, Alexander Hamilton's advice won out more times than that of any other individual , but, in retrospect, Hamilton's counsel still appears sage. Of course, in real crisis situations, Washington chose to direct from his actual presence, such as in the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, where he viewed a contingent of troops assembled to deal with the matter.
Control for Washington was scarcely embodied in management by objectives. Instead, the Constitution was his mandate, which he interpreted in conservative terms: The will of Congress he was loath to veto unless the Constitution had been infringed, a role later assumed by the Supreme Court. When the Constitution was vague, as in the instance of soliciting the advice and consent of the Senate on treaties, Washington tried a face-to-face encounter, only to learn that such was fruitless and would have to be avoided subsequently.
Perhaps most surprising is the first President's actual language of leadership. On occasion, it has a modern, even academic, ring. ''System to all things is the soul of business,'' Washington wrote. ''To deliberate maturely, and execute promptly is the way to conduct it to advantage.''