3 Leadership Principles from the Revolutionary War That Still Apply Today


On Sunday, January 21, 1776, in a small New England church, Pastor Peter Muhlenberg delivered one of the most dramatic sermons of his career. Muhlenberg’s text for the day was Ecclesiastics 3 where it explains, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted.”

Coming to the end of his sermon, Peter Muhlenberg turned to his congregation and said, “In the language of the holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away.”  As his congregation looked on, Muhlenberg stepped from behind the pulpit and removed his black robe to reveal the uniform of a military officer. He declared, “There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!”

Outside the church on that chilly New England Sunday morning, drums began to beat while inside 162 men followed Muhlenberg to the back of the church to enlist in the Continental Army.

The following day, 300 men from Muhlenberg’s church followed him off to war. They eventually became the 8th Virginia Brigade fighting for liberty. 

After the war, Muhlenberg continued to serve his country.  He was a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives not once, but three times. He was also elected to the Senate in 1801.

Peter Muhlenberg’s example helps us to understand 3 essential leadership principles that still apply today.


Good Leaders Inspire Others
At times, leaders use brute force in attempting to inspire their teams by declaring, “We must do this now, so let’s get moving.” This brute force approach does not tap into a team member’s intrinsic or extrinsic motivating stimuli, which causes them to enthusiastically join the effort. They may do what the leaders says, not because they want to, but because they have to. Sales people also attempt to describe what their product is and how well it works without motivating a buyer. Sometimes a different message is needed in order to motivate others. Martin Luther King inspired a movement by describing a dream and President John F. Kennedy rallied the nation to put a man on the moon and return him home safely by casting an inspiring vision.

Peter Muhlenberg didn’t declare what needed to be done, he explained why it had to be done. 300 men in his congregation were so moved by why they should join the Revolutionary cause, they were willing to leave their families to fight the War of Independence.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.


Good Leaders Are Willing to Get Out of Their Comfort Zones
Frederick Muhlenberg, Peter’s brother, was against Peter’s level of involvement in the war.  Peter responded to his brother, writing, “I am a Clergyman it is true, but I am a member of the society as well as the poorest layman, and my liberty is as dear to me as any man, shall I then sit still and enjoy myself at home when the best blood of the continent is spilling?”

80% of people live in their comfort zone afraid to step outside the imaginary walls that limit learning and leadership. In their 1908 study, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered that too little anxiety (comfort zone) results in poor performance. Interestingly enough, increased anxiety causes an increase in performance. There is, however, a balance between increased anxiety and extreme anxiety. Much like our comfort zones, extreme anxiety can reduce one’s performance. The Yerkes-Dodson Law indicates performance is maximized when operating in a state of optimal anxiety. Comfort zone leadership stifles potential, limits growth, and nurtures regret.

Max Depree once said, “We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.”


Good Leaders Lead by Example
Credibility is one of the most important traits a leader needs to have. People who say one thing and do another fail to earn the credibility necessary to lead others. As a leader, your team, associates, family, and friends are watching all that you do. A leader’s values should align with their actions in every area of his or her life whether at home, at the office in the boardroom, or on the field coaching Little League. A leader’s reputation is determined not by what he says, but by what he does.

Peter Muhlenberg was a great soldier. He became a Major General under Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Baron Steuben, in general orders, requested “General Muhlenberg to accept his very particular thanks for his gallantry and good dispatches. Because of his actions, Muhlenberg was given command of one thousand light infantry. Muhlenberg finished the war strong and is portrayed in a painting displayed in the United States Capitol Rotunda of the surrender of the British at Yorktown. 

Peter Muhlenberg passed away in 1807 at the age of sixty-one.  He was a great patriot as can be seen on his tombstone which reads, “He was Brave in the field, Faithful in the Cabinet, Honorable in all his transactions, a Sincere Friend and an Honest Man.”

Inspire others! Reach for great success by stepping out of your comfort zone and lead by example.

Mark Turner is President/CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce. After 20 years of sales and marketing, he left the corporate world and served 12 years in the ministry as an Associate Pastor before accepting his current position with the Chamber of Commerce.