The more I learn about Hyrum Ulysses Grant (aka Ulysses S. Grant, Unconditional Surrender Grant, General Grant and President Grant), the more I appreciate his many accomplishments, his unassuming and down-to-earth personality, and his personal integrity. Yes, he was prone to drunkenness between Civil War battles and when traveling away from home, but he was also honest and up front about his personal weakness. In fact, by the time he had been elected president, Grant had finally overcome his struggle, no longer succumbing to the temptation of liquor.
And sure, his two terms as US President are remembered mostly for the corruption of those of trusted. But his work for the rights of all American citizens – in contrast to some of his earlier missteps – including blacks, native Americans, Jews, and even Republicans in the southern states after the Civil War have too long been undervalued. Following the weakened and embattled presidency of Andrew Johnson, Grant returned the nation on a path, though long and even today not fully traveled, toward full equality before the law for all Americans.
In continuation of our previous post (Part 1), I present the second part of my collection of strategic planning and leadership lessons from the life of General and President U.S. Grant.
- The Difference between a Strategy, an Objective, and a Tactic. The six generals who preceded Grant as General of the Army of the Potomac are often and rightly judged as hesitant battle leaders. Detractors of Grant often portray him as a butcher, winning the war only because of the overwhelming numbers he through into the grinder of battle. Such critics overlook, often willingly, Grant’s greatest difference as a general. It was not his willingness to fight when others hesitated. It was his creation of an overarching strategy to win the war. Previous generals assumed that fighting the Army of Northern Virginia, under the master tactician but too-easily lionized Robert E. Lee, meant head-to-head battles of depletion. Grant’s strategy involved a three-pronged thrust into the south: 1) General Sherman’s march from Tennessee through Georgia and the Carolina, 2) General Sheridan’s thrust southwest through the Shenandoah Valley of northwestern Virginia, and 3) General Meade’s (Grant’s) Overland/Wilderness Campaign from the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg, Virginia through the siege of Richmond and Petersburg to the surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. Besides the approach, Grant also waged “Total War,” meaning he instructed Shearman and Sheridan to destroy all of the resources the Confederacy needed to continue waging war. This included rail lines, factories, and crops. It is easy to forget that the War had many detractors, and had it persisted in a stalemate, the War at the beginning of Civil War meant strangling the South and not allowing them access to rivers in the west to North. Tactics could win battles. Objective take cities. Strategies win wars. General Robert E. Lee was a great tactician, and against superior forces that had no strategies, he was battle after battle. Once, however, Grant’s strategy to encircle Southern armies was in place, Lee’s fate was sealed as tightly as the siege of Petersburg.
Leadership Takeaways: Without a long-term strategy for success, you may win some battles here and there, but you will be constantly fighting the same problems. If you have challenges that repeatedly pop up, they can put you in a defensive, reactive mode. Make sure to gather your leaders and stakeholders into a strategic team in order to hold an annual planning session. With a strategy in place, be sure to review it quarterly with your team, and make sure all subordinate tasks (objectives and tactics) are executed with the strategic in mind.
Strategic Planning Questions: Where do you want to be in 3 years? In 5 years? Have you defined what success is? Have you identified your enemy or enemies, internally and externally? Are they policies, lack of resources, unfair competition, or lack of vision? Who are your strategy-minded generals to include on your team?
- Strategic Partnerships vs. Nepotism: Grant grew up in an anti-slavery, Methodist family with an opportunistic father and an emotionally distant mother. After a long engagement, Grant married the love of his life, Julia Dent, who grow up a privileged daughter of a Missouri slave-owning family. Grant graduated, not near the bottom, as many believe, though not at the top of his West Point class. He made several life-long friends while there, both older and younger than he, and impressed many with his horsemanship. During the Civil War, Grant was often an astute judge of character. He learned which generals he could trust to take action toward victory and which we more concerned with favorable press and personal promotion. However, his time in the presidency is often judged, probably unfairly, as a time when Grant made one poor choice after another to fill the ranks of his administration. He picked a number of wonderfully-suited cabinet members, judges and ambassadors at a time when reconstruction was all but a dead cause and the Ku Klux Klan was running rampant through the south. That said, he also appointed far too many family members (in laws) to cushy federal positions. Though his own personal integrity was rarely ever questioned and has stood the test of time, he too often was blinded by those with duplicitous intentions and even blindly stuck by them long after it would have been prudent to move on. Such poor choices and judgment often lost him the confidence of those in Congress and even inside his administration, not to mention the American voters, that he needed for support of his agenda.
Leadership Takeaways: There is an ongoing debate about leadership as to whether it is better to higher for personality and train with skills or to higher the best skills and mold the personality into the company culture. Obviously, both personality and skills would be ideal. However, when one is missing, I would by far prefer to higher to personality. Personality much include a hunger for learning and succeeding as well as a good measure of humility to be generous and forgiving to others. If there is a history of success, then the person can learn the new skills. How much more pleasant for all involved than spending up to eight hours a day with a know-it-all who is critical of everyone around them. When skills become the primary concern, we tend to hang on far too long to a staff member who tends to poison the well.
Strategic Planning Questions: Are your field officers, from your generals down to your lieutenants, committed to the cause? Do you regularly have conversations with them and regularly solicit feedback and not just reports? Who do you have on your strategic leadership team? Committed commanders or those drafted against their will?
- Blind Faith in Others: The keyword here is “blind,” not faith. Grant himself was an honest man and, central to his character, without guile. Such is a wonderful characteristic to have. The problem for Grant was that he assumed that everyone else around him was without guile as well. Time and again, Grant was disappointed, betrayed or both by friends, family members, cabinet appointees, and even former army colleagues in whom he trusted without question. The betrayals in these cases often ended up as power or financial scandals that made headline news throughout Grant’s presidential administration and continues, to this day, to discolor our appreciation for Grant. Whether in his presidential administration or in his financial investments and business dealings, Grant’s “hands off” approach and complete trust in the ethics of others far too often ended in bitter personal disappointment. The sole reason we have today Grant’s wonderfully written and mostly unadorned memoirs – considered by many historians as the finest and most honest of the civil war period – is due to his implicit and total trust in a financial investor turned business partner who, in the end, used Grant’s name in a ponzi scheme that ended up sending two banks into ruin and placing Grant and his wife at the mercy and the charity of their friends. And much of those memoirs were written while Grant sat dying of tongue and throat cancer.
Leadership Takeaways: Trust is a critical relationship building and leadership characteristic in successful organizations. However, trust without accountability leaves leaders open to betrayal and disappointment. The popular phrase nowadays is “trust but verify.” Verification insinuates the use of third-party verification, not direct reports.
Strategic Planning Questions: When assigning goals and tactics to your leadership team, ensure that you will receive regular reports on their responsibilities. Make sure they are aware that you also receive reports from other sources in order to corroborate progress.
- Confident initiative: During the Civil War, General Grant often exhibited this trait, which gave him an advantage in battle. The General took Paducah Kentucky not through battle but because he had the foresight to move on the town before the Confederates did. While his opponents considered and debated their potential moves, the Union general moved his army and took the strategically-located town.
Leadership Takeaways: The relationship between risk and reward is a time-tested truism. Leaders who are willing to be decisive – while others prefer to analyze and investigate, consider and reconsider – are those who are first in and often most successful.
Strategic Planning Questions: Far too may organizations that hold a strategic planning session end their strategic planning without making direct assignments with deadlines. Research and analysis is fine unless it persists in delaying needed action. Accept that some strategic initiatives will fail, but getting started is the hardest yet most important step that you can take.
His face graces our $50 bills. He was adored by most northerners and appreciated by most southerners, even after many presidential administration scandals. We owe it to him to find out why. You owe it to yourself to learn some valuable leadership skills and qualities from US Grant, from his successes and from his failures. You will be glad you did.