This month, as we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, I encourage you to think about your notions of leadership and widening your view of the phenomena.
As you do, I ask you to consider the painting, Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851). This famous painting celebrates General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River to battle the Hessian garrison on Christmas night, 1776.
As you examine the painting, ask yourself a few questions:
- Who is the leader?
- Who are the followers?
- What is the goal of the people depicted in the painting?
- What is the context of the event portrayed in the painting?
- How might my own cultural values and norms affect the way I view this painting?
- What can this painting teach us about leadership?
The Common Image of Leadership
Luetze’s painting clearly shows a common image of leadership – a courageous leader in charge. Notice the glow surrounding Washington who stands at the center of the work. The stars seem to shine upon him.
Observe how Washington towers above the rest of the figures in the painting. This is often the way Western cultures conceive of leadership – the leader is the most important part of the picture.Leadership usually only focuses on the leader. But what about others in the picture? Click To Tweet
But what about the other figures in the painting – the followers? They seem to be in submission to Washington as they move the ice from the bow of the ship, row, and carry the flag.
Yet, they all played a vital role in the process of winning the war. Despite the name of the painting, it was not only Washington who crossed the river and won the battle on that fateful night. General Washington did not win the war on his own.
Washington’s Leadership in Context
Consider the context of the event portrayed in the painting. This was a group of rebels who were in jeopardy of losing their war of independence from England. The battle at Trenton was not as much of a strategic win for the revolutionary forces as it was a boost in morale for the troops. A loss, on the other hand, would have been devastating.
How did this context affect the leadership process?
What was the goal of Washington and his army?
Although independence from England was certainly the objective, notice how the American flag, which represents that objective, seems to tip away from Washington. It is in the shadows compared to the glowing light on Washington. It seems to play second fiddle to Washington’s greatness.
And yet, isn’t independence what the revolution was all about? Why does the goal seem to be lost in light of Washington’s greatness?
This is often how we in the West conceive of leadership – a larger-than-life leader, standing tall, and guiding hard-working followers, who deeply believe in the leader’s vision, but do not receive the same level of recognition. The leader outshines the goal and is rewarded with our admiration and respect, where all the other components seem to fade into the background.Leadership should also recognize the followers. Click To Tweet
Widening Our View of Leadership
Please don’t misunderstand me. Great leaders can teach us much about the nature of leadership. But leadership is a complex human process made up of many components, and each component contributes to the whole picture.
Rather than putting the spotlight on the leader – as in Leutze’s painting of Washington – I encourage you to widen the “glow” to encompass these other aspects of leadership, including the followers, the goal, the context, and our own preconceived views of leadership.
Only then can we really start to grasp the whole picture.
For more analysis on this painting and other works of art, check out Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective.
Photo credit: © Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com