Washington: The Making of the American Capital may be described as a narrative nonfiction about the political struggle of choosing and developing Washington DC as the capital of America. Unlike the bustling world-class city that it is today, Bordewich reveals how the US capital used to be an undesirable collection of farms and swamps that surprisingly got chosen, instead of established urban centers such as Philadelphia and New York.
Focusing on the 1790s to the early 1800s, the key character is none other than George Washington, the charismatic, idealistic and determined first president of the United States. Granted ten years by congress to complete the construction of Washington as a symbol of American unity and ascension, the president worked tirelessly. His first task was that of selecting the most appropriate location in the most democratic way. He knew what he wanted but it was fraught with many challenges. The land that was to become the future capital lacked appeal. It also had significant competition. It would cost much more than the divided, weak and emerging nation could afford. Yet the president had to move forward with conviction.
The book may be outlined as follows: chapters 1-5 deal with the challenge of selecting Washington DC as the American capital, instead of well-loved and already established places such as Philadelphia and New York. George Washington demonstrates visionary leadership, wisdom and decisiveness in managing this selection process. The second part, discussed in chapters 6-9, explains how distressful the construction years were. Some of the president’s stressors were probably widespread skepticism from congress and the nation at large; the need to mobilize funds locally and internationally at a time when the local economy was ailing and Europe thought the country was a joke; recruiting and retaining the right project staff; and managing public relations disasters.
In my opinion, Bordewich is trying to solve the problem of providing a real life, historical template for leadership in disruptive times. He does this by detailing how difficult it was for the first president to navigate selecting Washington DC; and by highlighting his determination to construct a remarkable capital city in the face of extreme difficulty.
What was most important to me is how Bordewich shows that regardless of how unfavorable circumstances might be, given the right attitude, effective leadership is achievable. Indeed, as Jim Collins suggests, “greatness is not a function of circumstance … [but] of conscious choice and discipline.” This is important because several developing nations and low-income communities face similar circumstances to what George Washington did in the 1790s: social instability, poverty, disunity, uncertain future, egotistic leaders and other challenges. Therefore, the book presents a template for visionary leadership in less-than-perfect conditions.
Before reading Washington, I knew that the American founding fathers faced significant challenges in building what has become the greatest nation on earth today. But I did not know it was that difficult to build Washington DC, and by extension, the rest of the country. Other new lessons learnt include the fact the first president was very active in his Masonic faith and even claimed that to be a “good mason is to be a good American.”
Washington encourages me, as a student of leadership, to persevere in leading as long as the goal is a worthwhile one. Indeed, given the high cost of leadership with regards to sacrificing time, comfort and other resources, it is imperative to ensure that the goal of my leadership has both temporal and eternal benefits to as many people as possible, including generations unborn. Finally, this narrative also highlights the importance of charting the right course as a leader. In other words, leaders must know not simply what to do, but how. This implies that in addition to technical competence, contemporary global leaders must develop people skills and excel in recruiting and retaining the right people.
 Jim Collins. “Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is not the Answer.” Random House 2006, 31.
 Fergus M. Bordewich. “Washington: The Making of the American Capital.” HarperCollins e-books 2008, 150.