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Americans celebrate the birthday of George Washington this Friday, Feb. 22, and it's a good time to reflect on how graces emerge and spread far and wide when leaders have a humble heart.

Of course, Jesus is the best leadership model and teacher of all time. No one compares to him. But Washington set as fine an example as we are likely to ever see in a political leader. The blessings of his leadership remain with us to this day, and so his example is worth recalling and celebrating.

We all know that as general and commander-in-chief, Washington led the U.S. to independence in the Revolutionary War, presided over the convention that drafted its Constitution, and then led it through its earliest days of nationhood as its first President. In fact, he got 100% of the electoral votes for both terms he was elected. No wonder we Americans refer to him today as "the father of our country," and others around the world regard him as a model political leader.

(A fun aside: He's also a man with two birthdays. When he was born, Britain and its colonies were among the last places to use the Julian calendar. So his parents celebrated his birth on Feb. 11, 1731. But in 1750 Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, and under its protocols Washington's birthday became Feb. 22, 1732.)

In any event, it would not have been a surprise if Washington's unsurpassed success as a leader in war and peace had given him an outsized ego. Many of his enthusiastic followers even encouraged it -- suggesting that as the chief executive of the new country he should be addressed as "king."

But Washington resisted. He said he should be addressed simply as "Mr. President," a tradition that persists to this day.

When the first Congress voted him an annual salary of $25,000, a huge sum then, he declined because he wished to set a precedent as a selfless public servant. However, after some objected that if presidents took no salary, only independently wealthy people could serve, he agreed to be paid.

As his second term wound down, many wanted him to stand for election once again. But he flatly refused a third term -- setting a precedent that continued into the 20th century when, after only one exception, that limit became law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment in 1947.

Today we have to wonder how history would have unfolded if all subsequent leaders in all nations had been as selfless as he was. Today pray that every leader at every level, beginning with ourselves, be graced with the ego of Washington.

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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