Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. or Join now .

When George Washington was a young man, he was far from the level-headed statesman depicted in paintings and books from the Revolutionary War era. Born in 1732 into a second-tier Virginia family, Washington was drawn to a military career as a way to propel himself upward—with ambition that bordered on the lunatic. By 20, he was a colonial militia leader, described as “temperamental, vain, thin-skinned, petulant, and awkward.” He was emotionally needy and prone to making mistakes. 

Those errors caused an international uproar when Washington, acting without orders, tracked down and attacked a small mission led by the French with no provocations, slaughtering 35 French soldiers in their tents. His actions set off a skirmish that would become the seven-year French-Indian war.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

But by the time the Revolutionary War started two decades later, Washington was 45. The leader of the American rebellion had matured. He’d learned from his hot-headed early days. “He was able to master and control some of his personality from his earlier years,” explains Daniel Silverman, a political scientist at Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy & Technology.  Silverman and two colleagues used Washington as a case study in a paper that analyzes how the age of rebel leaders impacts their success in military operations. 

Young rebel leaders were the most likely to lose.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

The researchers assessed the careers and wars fought by 425 rebel leaders throughout history and around the world and found some major themes: Young rebel leaders were the most likely to lose, middle-aged rebels were most likely to find military success, and older rebels were most likely to reach negotiated settlements.

Rebels are generally weaker than the governments they’re fighting, Silverman points out, which means they have to be creative. “You need to know how to pick your battles, how to take advantage of opportunities,” he says. “There’s a lot of decision making and marshaling resources instead of going for a maximum brute force approach, as you could if you were more powerful.” 

The results point to a few universal truths about age and maturity—especially for men, as all but one of the leaders in the study were male. Young men can be prone to hot-headed behavior, especially in situations where they are provoked and need more common sense and patience. On the other end of the spectrum, age and wisdom can go together, Silverman says.

Young men between the ages of 15 and 30 commit the most acts of criminal and political violence around the globe, which the authors attribute to testosterone, which peaks in males in their mid 20s and falls off afterward. That puts young men at a disadvantage as rebel leaders, where restraint is more important than impulsivity. Older leaders, they argue, are more likely to see the bigger picture in their actions, and are better able to regulate their emotions.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

Silverman sees some potential applications to the research: It would be helpful for governments and peacemakers to understand that if someone takes over a rebel organization at a very young age, they might be especially dangerous and prone to violence. “They’re likely to push the escalation button if they’re challenged, and that could lead to some dangerous places,” he says. “So maybe there should be a little more understanding of the risks there.” 

Kathleen Gallagher Cunnighman, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, says that the evidence in the paper is interesting and the analysis is sound—but that the research doesn’t speak to the underlying biological process they advance in their theory. She also notes that the outcome is aggregated—focused on the final winners instead of looking at individual rebel events. “I would be interested to see data on actual battle outcomes,” she says, “rather than war end outcomes to compare young leaders to other leaders.” 

Silverman says that while age matters in the context of rebel leaders, it can be overridden by other factors: The context of the conflict is important, of course. Some research has shown that if a leader starts a conflict rather than inheriting it from someone else, they are more likely to cling to it and not compromise, no matter their age.

In Washington’s later years, he was insistent on treating British POWs humanely and avoiding theft from and harm to local farmers, even while his soldiers were starving. This restraint, gained from age, ultimately won him clear-eyed victory, as well as a storied place in history.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

Lead image: Uncle Leo / Shutterstock

close-icon Enjoy unlimited Nautilus articles, ad-free, for as little as $4.92/month. Join now

! There is not an active subscription associated with that email address.

Join to continue reading.

Access unlimited ad-free articles, including this one, by becoming a Nautilus member. Enjoy bonus content, exclusive products and events, and more — all while supporting independent journalism.

! There is not an active subscription associated with that email address.

This is your last free article.

Don’t limit your curiosity. Access unlimited ad-free stories like this one, and support independent journalism, by becoming a Nautilus member.