Leadership Lessons From an American Revolution General

by  Michael Friesen  |  Leadership Development


I just finished a book titled, “Henry Knox, Visionary General of the American Revolution.” (Puls, 2008) If you will allow, here are a few leadership lessons drawn from the read.

Be Curious

Henry Knox began his education at the esteemed Boston Latin Grammar School founded by Harvard College. (Alumni included Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams.) When the Knox family’s financial situation started to founder and then the father left home, Henry – now age 8 – was forced to stop school and take a job. Henry was hired to work at a local bookshop. Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, young Knox was inquisitive and worked to steadily learn from the adult storekeepers and their many books.

Lesson: An effective leader uses curiosity as a fuel to constantly discover useful things about the organizational actions versus mission. This means cultivating professional relationships at all levels to better understand the prevailing culture (and sub-cultures). By this understanding comes wisdom on how to interact with team members to set and meet the best strategic goals. A natural, important by-product is trust-building which is the foundation for every effective organization.

Be Hands On When Needed

In 1781 at Yorktown, the American Army outnumbered their British counterparts but the battle’s outcome was not a foregone conclusion. General Knox worked hard to prepare the battlefield, especially the night of October 7, when he and his men worked in near silence to dig substantial trenches for the upcoming fight. Because the ensuing battle looked pivotal in the war, Knox took personal command of the artillery guns to ensure the best outcome. When the smoke cleared, the Americans were victorious and received the ceremonial sword of the British General.

Lesson: A great leader will have a finely tuned ability to delegate but must resist the temptation to abdicate, especially when the project goals are critical to the organizational success. The leader also may choose to be more hands-on when modeling is necessary. This is as much art as science but the team should never doubt the leader will get his or her hands dirty.

Shift Priorities Based On Principles

As Secretary of War under President Washington, Henry Knox accomplished or influenced several large-scale goals including the following.

  • Called for the a new constitution (the final document looked much like his proposal)
  • Launched the U.S. Navy
  • Constructed frontier and coastal defenses
  • Negotiated positive treaties and policies with American Indians
  • Strongly advocated for the military academy at West Point (founded in 1802 after Knox’s government service)

In addition, Mr. Knox resigned as Secretary of War when it became obvious his family needed him to be present for financial reasons. President Washington was disappointed but understanding. An interesting note about Knox is while several of his pursuits looked very different on the surface, they all served the larger mission of standing up a fledgling nation.

Lesson: A leader must constantly measure priorities against timeless principles and organizational aims. Just as important, the leader must have the humility to shift priorities to keep the company moving forward. Also, a holistic leader will not neglect a personal mission and will be ready to make even more dramatic shifts as required.

Our nation’s history is rich with incredible known and unknown heroes. As we go through this Christmas season into a new year, will you join me in a fresh commitment to more healthy professional and personal relationships for leadership growth?


Puls, Mark (2008). Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution. New York, NY. Palgrave MacMillan.


Picture Credit – Marion Doss on Flickr


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Deborah L. Parker  |  28 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Nice post Michael. Like the link between curiosity and trust-building.

Mike Friesen  |  28 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Appreciate the kind words, Deborah.


Dan Pinkham  |  03 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Henry Knox also continued to value and drive local education. He served on the first Board of Trustees of Lincoln Academy, a private secondary school founded in 1801 ‘for the purpose of promoting Piety, Religion and Morality.’ It is located on the coast of Maine and is still thriving after more than 200 years (and is my alma mater). Check it out at

Cheryl Walters  |  03 Jan 2013  |  Reply

Great article Michael!

Henry Knox is a fascinating character. Appreciate your applying today’s leadership needs to this man. At only 25 years of age, Knox led a small group of men on a 300-mile journey from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga in New York State. Once there, his men disassembled cannon taken when the British surrendered the fort and retreated to Canada in May 1775. In less than 8 weeks, Knox and his men moved 60 tons of artillery across lakes and rivers, through ice and snow to Boston, where the British, now out-gunned, fled.

Another interesting read on one of our nation’s great leaders (past and present) that I recommend is “Washington, A Life” by Ron Chernow. Such an compelling read, and as Knox’s commander, this book details the true friendship these two heroes had and I haven’t been able to put it down.

Have a great 2013!
Cheryl Walters

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