Those of us in the cutthroat world of business might all do well to borrow a leaf from George Washington’s book. Or, to put it more precisely, we might do well to borrow the benevolent spirit found in a note he wrote to one of his key rivals.
It was in October of 1777 just after the battle of Germantown, a point in the American Revolution when the fortunes of the Continental Army were at a particularly low ebb, when a small dog wandered into the area between the British and American lines, and was taken into custody by one of Washington’s soldiers. Noticing that the animal had a tag identifying it as the property of the British general, William Howe, the soldier took it to Washington proposing that the “captured” pet of the redcoat commander become a mascot for the Americans, thereby improving morale.
Washington, however, had other ideas. Ordering a ceasefire, he had the dog returned to Howe under a flag of truce with a note that read: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” The British commander was apparently so taken aback by this act of kindness that from that day on he reportedly was reluctant to press his advantage over Washington’s forces and eventually resigned rather than follow an order to “show such little compassion to the rebels that they will be afraid to do ought but to return to the crown,” leaving the field to less proficient generals who ultimately lost the war.
If an act of kindness could help turn the tide of war (and thus alter the course of history), could displays of good will toward our adversaries in business have similar results? I believe they could – in fact, I think the more brutal the competitive environment in which we find ourselves, the more important civility and magnanimity become. Such behavior, more often than not, will bring out the best in those we’ve come to regard as rivals, and set the stage for negotiations that are likely to be to the advantage of everyone concerned.
It’s not often, of course, that we can avail ourselves of the kind of opportunity to show compassion that Washington had. But there are many times that we can display our good will in smaller ways – for example, by applauding some great comment from an individual we may consider our antagonist in a meeting rather than begrudging them their astuteness, and perhaps following up by letting them know how brilliant or witty we thought their observation was. Or by giving recognition and respect to opposing points of view in a group situation. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should refrain from pursuing our own objectives or trying to get the best possible deal we can. But what I am saying is that a benevolent attitude can actually help us in realizing those goals, just as it helped Washington win the Revolution.
What I also find fascinating is that by being nice to others, we’re also being nicer to ourselves, in that it feels so much better than being querulous or uncivil. And that can go a long way in soothing jangled nerves, partuclarly after a stressful week of meetings.