NO MORE BS: 14 Rules on Civility – Gen. George Washington

Washington at Valley ForgeGeneral George Washington wrote “Rules on Civility” (1887) and helped mold and model a growing social environment in America.  These 110 rules for civility also encapsulate good advice to leaders applicable today, and fourteen of them are discussed below as they bear direct application to the current societal ills.  The hope remains that in pointing out these rules, American Citizens may become more of an example, and American Society as a whole will begin to lift itself to a higher level of performance.

Rule 19:

Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.

I worked with a manager who made the following statement about the director we both answered to, “I never know whether he is joking, jesting, or being serious.”  Having words not meet the non-verbal cues is a failure of leadership and can cause disharmony, chaos, and no end to trouble.  Model and exemplify pleasant emotions.  Never try to confuse your audience, never adopt an emotion without a purpose, and never make your audience think or wonder about your emotional state or demeanor.  More importantly, looking pleasant builds confidence in those around you to act with pleasantness and harmony, so smile, speak softly, and generate pleasantness.

Rule 25:

Superfluous compliments and all affectation[s] of ceremonies are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.

Finest HourRule 25 speaks to offering sincere praise, showing gratitude, returning credit to the source for things that are progressing well, and accepting failure when things go poorly.  I had the displeasure of working with an officer who gave insincere praise making a lavish ceremony out of providing that insincere praise and then laughing at the person being singled out for the recognition for not knowing how to proceed correctly.  The morale of the unit was disastrous and deadly.  Several members of that group held a deep desire for a “friendly fire incident” involving this officer as the victim.  The same problems arise in society, and if left to fester, an individual’s potential is wasted, and money follows lost potential.

Don’t forget to limit ceremony, pomp, and procession to the level needed to honor the awardee without allowing the ceremony, pomp, or spectacle to exceed the degree of the award or the awardee’s comfort level.  Know the audience and limit the service to the comfort of the audience.  Thus allowing those being awarded and those in attendance to celebrate in a manner conducive to the award and an individual’s comfort level.

Rule 35:

Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

We have all heard, and many live by the axiom, “Time is money.” This rule from Gen. Washington speaks to the need for comprehension, timeliness, and specificity.  Limit the words, tone down the rhetoric, restrict the emotional content, and get to the point, thus saving the audience’s attention and exemplifying respect for the other person in the communication.

Rule 39:

In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the customs of the place.

Did you work hard for your title; yes.  Thus, reflect the respect for your title to others.  I met two different authority figures, 180-degrees apart from each other that saw this principle from opposing extremes.  One manager refused to use titles calling the whole thing meaningless while demanding respect for their rank and title.  20-year employees who had obtained great honor and respect amongst their peers received no respect from the leader who demanded respect.

The other leader cared a great deal for their title because those who had held that title before them and respected others who had earned titles for the same reason.  The second leader had higher morale, fewer behavioral problems, and loyal people who achieved greatness.  The first leader had nothing but trouble, never could reach goals and objectives, and passed the failures to produce onto others.

RememberIn our global working environment, knowing the culture and showing respect is critical to creating success.  More importantly, if you as a leader have not already cultivated respect for titles, the ability to show genuine respect for those people with titles will place you at a disadvantage and harm the businesses you represent.  Make time to learn and practice showing proper respect for those with titles.

I have been criticized many times for using titles for those others deem unworthy of the title.  For example, President’s Clinton, Obama, Bush II, and Biden.  But, I use the title out of respect for, and an acknowledgment to, all who have honorably held the title president.

Rule 44:

When a man does all he can, though it succeed[s] not well, blame not him that did it.

How many times has success been snatched from the hands of those trying, and the leader then berates, criticizes, and derides those who tried?  Since measuring individual effort is not possible, first presume everyone did their best, promoting a spirit of learning from failure and building people.  Even if the actions were thought to be malicious and vengeful, praise and support people, you never know, and in not knowing, do not assume!

I would also interject the following thought, Juran’s Rule details that when problems arise, 90% of the time, the failing process is to blame, and only 10% of the time are people to blame for failure.  Thus, look to the processes, the procedures, the methods of work for answers, employ training, and never blame people; this includes blaming yourself.

Rule 45:

Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be done in public or in private, and presently or at some other time; in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of cholar but do it with all sweetness and mildness.

(Please note, the term “cholar” has had a spelling update and is now spelled “choler” and defined as showing irascibility, anger, wrath, or irritability.  From Latin is the origin cholera.)

There is a great truth hidden here; this rule mimics another axiom, “Praise in public and reprimand in private.” While speaking to timeliness, this rule allows the leader to select when and where praise and reprimand occurs.  Do not forget Rule 19 emotion is a leadership tool, not a weapon; tools guide and instruct, weapons destroy and demoralize.  Use emotion wisely or choose not to use emotion at all per the rule above, but make emotion a conscious choice!

Rule 48:

Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, — for example is more prevalent than precepts.

During my military service, I had a mid-level officer that hated and punished severely those who slept on watch, for a good reason.  The problem, the officer regularly slept on watch.  The example was more prevalent than the precepts taught and destroyed morale.  Rules 19, 45, and 48 all discuss powerful leadership principles and a general theme and should be considered individually and collectively to make the lessons more powerful.  First, know yourself, then know those you aspire to lead, and finally lead well.

Rule 49:

Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.

In the world today, many confuse reprimand (rebuke or admonition) with reproach (finding fault, upbraiding, blaming, censure, disgrace, or discredit), and this has led to a lot of confusion in communication.  More to the point, the leaders’ language has coarsened, hardened, and plasticized or transitioned into bluster and buffoonery instead of calm and control.

Life ValuedI know a brilliant person, photographic memory, incredible mental ability, no people skills, no technical expertise, and they possess great pride in having and not having these skills.  This person was promoted to the level of a senior officer in the US military.  During an inspection, this officer wept uncontrollably when their plan, and the inspection, went to pieces, machinery broke down, and the inspection failed.  This brilliant person could not speak to inferiors without an attitude of superiority, cursing and accusing everyone and anyone.  Leaders, especially those placed in command through rank, must understand this communication principle and this principle’s power for good and ill.

Failure to communicate remains the sole variable upon which organizational cancer metastasizes into a full-blown case of organizational chaos leading to destruction (Dandira, 2012).  Want to know why so many democratic societies are in trouble; look first to the leaders’ language.

Rule 58:

Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ‘tis a sign of tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.

The above “rule” is a choice; rather, two choices.  The first choice is choosing to speak without malice and envy as a sign of your personal nature.  The second choice is to restrict passion.  Leaders only show emotion as a tool, not a weapon.  Conversation requires a restricted passion for conveying to the audience logic and confidence in the leader and the discussion topic.

Rule 59:

Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules before your inferiors.

I used to think this was common sense, and then I met two Chief Petty Officers (CPOs) in the US Navy and discovered that common sense is not very common.  These two CPO’s remarked upon everything they saw, verbally spewing whatever occurred between their two ears, and were always examples of what not to do and how not to act.  Feeling their rank and position secure, these CPOs then punished those who did not act in their manner severely, and those who replicated their actions were rewarded and protected from the consequences.  The result is that the followers exceeded the CPOs’ examples with noticeable negative results for morale, good order, and discipline.

Rule 65:

Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor in earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.

ToolsI worked with a brilliant and incredible person who took a little time to learn and was very clumsy.  Once the topic was taught, this individual knew that task and performed it in an exemplary manner.  Because of the clumsiness and time, it took to learn, this person was always the butt of his command’s jokes, jibes, insults and was on every single petty detail possible and poorly performed those tasks.  When respected, honestly, and sincerely praised, this person performed incredible feats.  The difference amazed and shocked his command and division but did not silence these voices of derision to the detriment of the worker’s quality and depression.  Did my friend give occasion to be laughed at; certainly!  Did he deserve to be laughed at; certainly not!

Let us be doing better at controlling ourselves and exemplifying the behaviors we desire to see in others.

Rule 67:

Detract not from others, neither be excessive in commanding.

While much of Rule 67 can be considered part of Rule 65, detracting from others goes beyond the verbal haranguing of Rule 65.  Detract is to reduce in value, usually with the intent of making yourself larger.  Managers detract from their workers by taking credit for all the good and passing off all the blame.  Leaders attract the responsibility and detract the praise back to the source.

The final aspect of this rule is necessary to understand excessive commanding.  Commanding with unreasonable commands is nothing more than dominating in an authoritarian manner to the destruction of others.  Even controlling without excessive commands but with an attitude of domination can destroy.  Commanding well is an attitude of servitude coupled with a desire to build, grow, and develop people to meet their individual potential and doesn’t generally need commands but always needs guidance or, if you prefer, coaching and mentoring.

Good TimberConsider the life of a tree planted in good soil and on level ground.  The tree spends the first 10-15 years of life with a guidewire to help the tree grow straight.  Not a command and forced growth, but a guided development into growing straight and true.  People are like the tree; the leader is like the guidewire, build people through guidance or coaching, not commands and demands.

Rule 73:

Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.

I was raised in a home where pronunciation and enunciation were as critical to speaking as spelling, and correct grammar is to writing well.  The rules included proper and logical thinking before speaking.  The process of communication is aided and abetted by correctly pronouncing and enunciating your words when speaking, after carefully thinking and crafting your desires into coherent thoughts.

Friends QuoteIn the US Army, I did not have trouble with my upbringing interfering with communication.  In the US Navy, I had nothing but problems with how I was raised interfering with communications.  One day, I spent 45-minutes being verbally upbraided by a second-class petty officer who choose to speak with no regard for the English Language rules, no understanding of grammar, and no logic.  The petty officer used Ebonics as a symbol of pride intended to confuse the receiver.  I was then referred to the Senior CPO for not listening and being disrespectful.  I explained I could not understand what was being said and was told that my understanding of language is not his understanding of language and that I am in the wrong for not working harder to show empathy to a higher-ranking person.

Remember, the second-class petty officer chose, while on duty, to speak in a manner that intentionally could not be understood and always spoke in an understandable style when off duty.  If placed into a position of authority, managerial, or leadership, that role comes with communication expectations using logic, standard English pronunciation rules, diction, and proper grammar to ensure mutual understanding.  When confusion in language occurs, it is the leaders, or managers, job to rephrase and change language to meet the listener’s understanding.

IT JokeAs mentioned, these rules form the bedrock upon which long and fruitful careers of leadership are built.  If weak in a particular rule, choose to obtain training and counsel on how to improve.  Find people exemplifying these rules and support them in their good works.  Train and develop those not employing these rules into better people, and our entire society improves.

Better still, employ a spirit of learning, which includes forgiving yourself when mistakes occur, always remain open to learning, and living to a higher level.  America, since the 1960s, has been intentionally dumbed down by the enemies of America.  Hence, everyone has the same problem; we were deliberately not instructed well, which has led to a life of lower standards.  These lower standards have created issues not foreseen by those controlling the dumbing down of society.  One of those issues and one of our most incredible tools are the same, individual choice.  Choose to live to a higher standard by learning and teaching.  Never forget, the best follower is themselves but a leader in training.


Dandira, M. (2012). Dysfunctional leadership: Organizational cancer. Business Strategy Series, 13(4), 187-192. doi:

Washington, G. (2009). George Washington’s Rules of Civility (and decent behavior in company and conversation). Retrieved December 30, 2016, from

© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.


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Dual service military veteran. Possess an MBA in Global Management and a Masters degree in Adult Education and Training. Pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Business professional with depth of experience in logistics, supply chain management, and call centers.

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