Lessons from the First Innovator in Chief

Usually, when someone thinks of George Washington, they think of him as the general who beat the British, first U.S. president or that guy on the $1 bill.  

But on a recent tour of Mt. Vernon – Washington’s home and plantation – I was struck by his business acumen, specifically by how innovative he was.  

Mt. Vernon is about 30 minutes from Washington D.C., and sits atop a long, green sloping lawn down to the Potomac River.  Mt. Vernon is an estate that includes Washington’s house along with all of the outbuildings needed for farmhands, his gristmill, smoke house and other production buildings, a giant garden and animal farm and his tomb.  

Touring this magnificent piece of history made me dub Washington the Innovator in Chief.  Here are three lessons from Washington’s life that can be applied to innovators today:

Buy Technology That Makes A Difference: In 1765, cutting-edge automation was farm-related, and Washington was the leader of the pack.  That year, he wrote “I am never sparing…in furnishing my Farms with any…tool and implement that is calculated to do good and neat work.”  He was talking about the Rotherham plow, a sleek new invention from England that trumped older plows with a lighter and smaller design and improved wedge, which made cutting through sod easier.  It was one of many farm innovations he pioneered.

Be Ready to Pivot to a New Opportunity: Mt. Vernon was a tobacco plantation when Washington inherited it upon the death of his older half-brother in 1752.  But Washington foresaw the need for food to feed the growing population of the colonies.  Out came the tobacco and in came wheat.  

Trust The Right People: One of the key innovations on Mt. Vernon is the gristmill that was used to turn wheat and corn into flour.  Washington picked one of the first Automated Milling Systems ever developed (which was awarded Patent #03), and powered it with a 16-foot waterwheel.  The efficiency of this mill made it possible for Washington to make enough flour for the farm and also for export to foreign markets.  But just when everything was running smoothly, Washington’s farm manager came to him with an idea to build a whiskey distillery next to the gristmill.  Washington listened, invested and in short order, the distillery became one of the largest profit makers at Mt. Vernon, shipping 11,000 cases at its zenith.

Washington brought innovations into his home as well, with the latest in globes and a chair with foot pedals for powering a fan overhead.  By working the pedals, he could get a cool breeze on even the muggiest day.

We owe a lot to George Washington who is rightly called the father of our country.  Perhaps we’ve also inherited his spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship.