Surviving Tough Times – Lessons From Valley Forge


I am sure you remember the elementary school teachings about George Washington: he would not tell a lie; his word was his bond and he cared first about his country; attributes that defined his character and his leadership.  A look at his and one of our country’s greatest crisis can give tips about surviving and emerging even stronger from tough economic times.

In December 1777, after being forced to abandon Philadelphia, Washington retreated to a small village where Valley Creek entered the Schuylkill River – Valley Forge.  Arriving in time for Christmas, the troops were famished but there was no Christmas feast.  Instead they dined dinned on “fire cake” – a mixture of flour and water fried on a griddle – and drank water.

At Valley Forge, the American Army suffered through deprivation and winter conditions unimaginable today.  With each one housing twelve men, they lived in 16’ x 14’ log huts with walls six and one-half feet high.  With a fireplace and no windows, the huts were drafty, damp, smoky and unhealthy. Snow and rain kept the entire camp mud-clogged, smelly and miserable.  Not more than ruts, roads were impassable, so supplies could not be delivered.

Although orders were issued for the men to use privies, they relieved themselves wherever they were; often times upstream from where their drinking water was obtained. Dysentery and typhus were rampant, making diseases the great enemy.  Chronically short of medical supplies and grossly understaffed, temporary hospitals – barns, churches, and dwellings – were breeding grounds for disease.

Washington described the conditions in a letter to Governor George as follows: “For some days past, there has been little less than a famine in camp. A part of the Army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days.”  He went on to write, “Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter.”

It is remarkable that the Army survived Valley Forge; what is even more remarkable is that not only did it survive; it emerged stronger than ever before.  Professionalism, confidence and pride marked those who had survived the ordeal.

How was it possible that a stronger Army could come from such terrible hardship?  Part of the answer lies in Washington’s determination.  His resolution is demonstrated when in his letter to Clinton he states, “I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent the fatal consequences, we have so great a reason to apprehend.”  Refusing to be a victim, Washington did everything to help his men survive and prepare them for the battles to come.

Washington’s appointment of Baron Von Steuben as the Inspector General of the Army was the other part of the answer.  Von Steuben was able to take what was a mob and turn it into an Army.  He created his own manual of arms and simplified drills to fit any situation.  He trained men in the use of the bayonet, mounting of the guard and sentry duty and required watches to be synchronized with the headquarters clock.

Determination is essential to surviving this economic malaise.  Like Washington you must “put every engine to work” and leave no stone unturned.  If something doesn’t work, try something else.  By doing so, you create the possibility of increasing sales and/or decreasing expenses and you demonstrate your desire to your colleagues and employees.

When his quartermaster general failed to provide the necessary supplies, Washington fired and replaced him with Nathaniel Green, his most capable general.  In tough times, poor performances can lead to the demise of an enterprise.  It takes top people making their best efforts to overcome grave circumstances.

Washington didn’t let the problems at Valley Forge prevent him from looking to the future.  He appointed Von Steuben to prepare the Army, not only to survive but to win the Revolution.  You cannot allow yourself to get so wrapped up in today that you fail to plan for tomorrow.  The discipline that is instilled and the training that takes place now will ensure success when better times arrive.

Determination, creativity, insuring that the best people are where needed most and envisioning future success are traits successful leaders utilize to survive and prosper.

You Mustn’t Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high

And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit,

Rest! If you must-but never quit.

Life is queer, with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a failure turns about

When he might of won if he’d stuck it out;

Stick to your task, though the pace seems slows-

You may succeed with one more blow.”  Anonymous

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One response to “Surviving Tough Times – Lessons From Valley Forge

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