There are approximately 31.5 billion quarters circulating throughout our nation’s economy at last count, give or take several million. That is a lot of exposure for the person whose face appears on the “heads side.” Wouldn’t it be nice, even gratifying if our picture was on a quarter: A personal 25-cent bastion of immortality?
George Washington has held the place of honor since 1932. Today, among Americans, that name is almost cliché. Nationally, we are so accustomed to his generic description, “Father of Our Country” that we eclipse what the man, the icon, did to get on the quarter. Here’s a hint: You must be good before you become an icon. You must be extremely good, perhaps even sublime, to get on a quarter.
There is a recipe for making it on money, which requires three ingredients. First, live during a crisis period for America. Second, be a leader who can tame the crisis and bring the country through the period better than it was before. Finally, possess fortitude, which surmounts complacency, when complacency is the easiest most risk-free answer to the crisis.
Time we cannot control. If we are lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to live through a desperate crisis, we check off this ingredient of the formula. But, that is the easy part. It’s nothing more than fate and a birthday.
Strong, visionary leadership is the key precious quality, the rare second ingredient. What makes Washington human is he did not possess these leadership qualities when he became the commander of the Continental Army. But he developed as a leader, learning from his mistakes and from others.
So what is it Washington did that a hundred other leaders who lived through the American Revolution did not do equally well? Let’s convert his situation into one that makes sense to us now. Imagine George Washington is alive today and owns a franchise fast food restaurant: McDonald’s, Arby’s, Burger King—whatever. He has 20 employees. One morning when he opens up, only three employees show up for work. The same day, he learns a major competitor is building a restaurant directly across the street. Making things worse, George finds out his manager is going to work for this new competitor.
A month later, three of his missing employees come back to work. He must accept them back because good help is scarce. Now he has six people for all shifts. George’s staff is a far cry from his normal 20 employees and can barely keep his doors open for business. He promotes a new manager, but this person does not like work and spends the day reading newspapers in the break area.
Compounding Washington’s troubles, the franchise home office wants to pull his franchise rights and give them to one of his ex-employees. Finally, the black coup de grace: The bank will not extend credit so he can replace his worn out kitchen equipment.
Pretend for a moment we are George Washington, sitting in his office late one night, reviewing the present crisis. What would we think? What would we do? The natural inclination is, “This is hopeless!” Perhaps a “For Sale” might appear in front of the restaurant?
This is exactly the kind of situation George Washington faced entering the winter of 1776. Yet George took the crisis and converted it into a fifty-store powerhouse: the United States. Washington’s Army around New York numbered roughly 20,000 during the summer of 1776. By Christmas, his force was just over 3,000. He had limited supplies, few supporters within Congress and no financial backing. Others were machinating behind his back to replace him. His British foe outnumbered him more than 3-to-1. The situation was desperate. Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River is more than a quaint painting. It is the defining moment in American history.
By strength of will alone, this one man saved the American Revolution. This is not a gross simplification or exaggeration. It is fact. Without a leader of Washington’s mettle, we might still sing “Rule Britannia” before sporting events instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Best case, America would still be sending teams to the Commonwealth Games. Washington was the embodiment of the Stocksdale Paradox: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end while confronting the most brutal facts.” This kind of unique, intense commitment gets your face on a quarter. It also results in two terms as president, and the title “Father of Our Country.”
Most would quit when faced by seemingly insurmountable odds. Not George. He possessed a vision for America, a dream he held more dearly than money or his life. He was not about to mortgage that dream cheaply.
The final ingredient for our recipe is willingness to lead when others defer. Washington was a wealthy man, a self-made businessman. He could easily have sat out the American Revolution and kept his portfolio safe. But his vision allowed no room for complacency. He gambled his property, his career and his life by leading the American army. Had the Revolution failed, Washington and dozens of patriots would surely have paid with their lives. Complacency was the easy answer, viewing the risk/reward equation. For George Washington, there was never a question. He placed country above self-interest and partisan posturing…imagine that. Others that aspired to usurp Washington ultimately showed their mettle was far inferior to his. We are indeed fortunate for his perseverance. It made Washington the indispensible man in American history.
Rarefied people like Washington exist today, poised and waiting for the next generation quarter. God forbid, a national crisis should provide the forum needed for greatness. Unfortunately for most, crisis usually means suffering and sacrifice. When it ends, all earn a share of glory once the country emerges on the “other side,” made of stronger tempered steel. But, in the end, the person who leads us to the other side through the crisis, gets their picture on a quarter.