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6 Leadership and Strategic Planning Lessons from the Life of US Grant

A couple of months ago, I worked my way through the audio book of Grant, by Ron Chernow… all 38 CDs. It was a fascinating look into the life and character of one of the most important, most maligned (often, though not always, inappropriately) and most underappreciated leaders in US history. If you enjoy a good biography and/or military history – which I certainly do – I highly recommend it.

US Grant and What He Teaches Us about Strategic Planning

Though much of the audio book addresses Grant’s presidency, I believe that his generalship during the Civil War is most apropos to our discussion of leadership and strategic planning for businesses and organizations. When we read or hear of President Ulysses Sam Grant (actually born Hyrum Ulysses Grant) or of General Grant from his invaluable service during the Civil War, we far too often picture him as the drunken soldier or as the scandal-plagued president. Though not without basis, these portraits are so far from complete and so one-sided that we do the man and our debt to him a great injustice.

For our purposes, let us look at a few examples from the life and accomplishments of US Grant through the lens of strategic planning and leadership examples for your organization:

  1. Be an Effective and Dutiful Quartermaster: During Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), Grant and many other future Civil War generals gained their first battlefield experiences (The Training Ground by Martin Dugard is another good read to consider). Grant and many other West Point graduates played important roles in the prosecution of the war, if not in its leadership. The justness of the war is a topic for some other blogger, though I believe far too many Americans ignore this piece of our history with our southern neighbor. I certainly did. Grant served as a junior officer in Louisiana and Texas. In Mexico, General Winfield Scott appointed Grant quartermaster, in charge of providing troops with all food, supplies equipment that did not include weapons. Though Grant sought (and several times found) opportunities to engage in the fighting, he learned the critical importance of organized resources, the morale boost that providing sufficient and appropriate supplies for the troops can be, and the critical nature of creative thinking when faced with feeding a large army thousands of miles from home with no overland supply route. To take care of this last responsibility, Grant developed the valued trait of work with a local population that was not necessarily happy to have the Gringos nearby. After the war, Grant continued to serve as quartermaster in the army in his assignments to Oregon and California.
    Leadership Takeaways: First, providing the necessary resources for your team may be boring and may not seem like leadership, but it will maximize morale and sends the message that you care about your staff and their work. Second, be creating in supplying needed resources, not just reacting to the need by running to the local office supply store. Often, the resource your people need is not available for purchase, such as mentoring.
    Strategic Planning Questions: During the development and regular review of your strategic plan, make sure that you are revisiting these questions: Does my team have the resources they need to carry out their assignments? Perhaps 6 months ago they did, but do they now? If financial resources are scarce (and are they not always), what strategic partnerships can you form that can build your arsenal of resources?
  2. Focus on the Winning Strategy: Grant knew from the beginning of Civil War that the winning strategy for the North meant strangling the South’s ability to make and sustain war. That was the strategy that eventually won the war, not just the bloody battles he is known for. Contrasted with the seemingly weak-stomached generals who preceded him, Grant appeared to have been heartless with regard to his men and their sacrifices. On the contrary, he not only wore unpretentious uniforms but lived often in tents and rode through the horrors of war as his men did. Grant did remain focused on a winning strategy, understanding that the South could not be allowed access to navigable rivers in the west. With the overall strategy in mind, it became much easier for Grant to implement goals (the taking and holding of certain key towns and cities situated along those rivers) and then implement tactics (battle plans) to achieve his goals. The opposing general (to whom, in full disclosure, I am more closely related than to U.S. Grant) is historically seen as a brilliant general who lost the war only because of a lack of resources. Though I am not a military historian, I believe those who see General Lee as the master tactician, outfoxing, outflanking and even outwitting his opponents in battle. But Grant is rarely given his due when it comes to his overall winning strategy.
    Leadership Takeaways: While leaders must be confident in their winning strategy, they must often be both patient in their quest to implement it while willing to lose a battle to win the war. With a strategy in place, goals and tactics become meaningful and, consequently, more motivational to all involved.
    Strategic Planning Questions: What do you define as victory? Can you identify two or three means by which you can achieve this victory? Does winning depend upon your opposition losing, or does your strategy give you full control over your destiny? Which strategy is the most efficient, effective and simplest to implement?
  3. Focus on a winning strategyBe Gracious in Victory: More than once during the Mexican-American War, Grant witnessed the general of the US army vanquish the opposing forces and still provide them with an opportunity to retain some of their self-respect. In gestures foreshadowing Grant’s own magnanimity at Appomattox Courthouse twenty years later, Generals Taylor and Scott allowed the surrendering forces to retain their possessions and return home, rather than retain them as prisoners.
    Leadership Takeaway: Crowing about our successes may feel justified and even build our self-confidence, but being self-confident will not build or support our team.
    Strategic Planning Questions: When considering recent successes, what did you and your team get right? What current objectives and goals can benefit from the lessons of these successes? At whose or what expense did you achieve the victory? What can you and your team do in the future to build and strengthen that person or group now and turn the situation into a win-win?
  4. Capitalize on your Competitive Advantages: From his childhood, Ulysses was a superb horseman. He did not graduate at the top of his West Point class (nor did he finish near the bottom), but he was absolutely the best horseman among the cadets, even performing a breath-taking feat of jumping to close his class’s graduation ceremonies.. Surprisingly, though he hoped for a position with the cavalry, he was turned down. This did not dissuade him from using his skills. During the Mexican-American War, when an urgent message had to be delivered to another unit through the dangerous streets of Monterrey, Grant rode at full gallop, often hanging to one side to shield himself from musketry fire at intersections, to deliver the key message. It was an act of bravery not forgotten by those who witnessed it.
    Leadership Takeaways: Being the leader means you must take risks. At the end of the day, if the organization or the program fails, you are responsible for that failure. Your required performance may include the possibility that things will go badly, but if you do not risk it, what are the consequences for your comrades?
    Strategic Planning Questions: What are you and your organization truly good at? Have you written it into your strategic plan, and do you refer to it during strategic planning reviews? It may seem like showing off, but if you do not celebrate your advantages from time to time, how will your team remember to use them when the opportunities present themselves?
  5. Establish a Vision for the Future: During the height of the Gold Rush in 1852, Grant was assigned a garrison post as Captain in California. This required him to journey from the East Coast What is your strategic vision of the future?by a paddle wheel steamer – heavily overcrowded with treasure seekers and their families – to the east coast of Panama, from where he and his expedition headed over land to the Pacific coast for another leg of their sea journey. Grant ended up staying with the final group to head across the peninsula, forecasting (and unfortunately being proven right) heavy losses due to unhealthy conditions. In the course of their journey, the group lost one-third of its members to cholera. To the generally tender-hearted Grant, this was a problem that needed to be solved. When he became president in 1869, Grant ordered the surveying of a possible route across the Central American isthmus. Even though Grant had preferred a route across Nicaragua, his vision for a cross-isthmus eventually led to the reality of the Panama Canal.
    Leadership Takeaways: Though not always, leaders tend to draw upon their life experiences to discover opportunities around them, often in the form of the unfulfilled needs of others.
    Use your experience to identify a problem in the world, and then envision ways to overcome it.
    Strategic Planning Questions: What conditions in your company, industry and society do you find unacceptable? If you are not in a position to address the challenges or problems now, why system do you have in place to reconsider the issue in the future?
  6. Know Yourself and Face Your Weaknesses Squarely: To be sure, Grant had his weaknesses. In spite of (or perhaps due to) his upbringing in a highly disciplined home with and parents who strongly supported prohibition, Grant took to heavy drinking during his years as a young officer in Northern California and Oregon before the Gold Rush. His few experiences regarding dereliction of duty earned him a life-long reputation that opponents would bring up and rehash for their own purposes.
    In reality, Grant continued to struggle with what we call binge drinking until his time as election to the presidency, after which no credible account exists of such behavior. However, throughout the Civil War, Grant succumbed infrequently to his demons, though only during what we could call times of leave. Typically, after battles or during winter encampments when battles were unlikely, and always when Grant was away from his armies and men, he was mostly likely to indulge in drinking to excess. The rest of the time, his discipline was such that his did not allow alcohol of any kind at his meals or in his tent and, though with futility, demanded the prohibition of alcohol in his armies.
    Leadership Takeaways: Everybody struggles with embarrassing challenges. You are likely aware of your own personal faults and should be striving to improve upon them. Ensure that they are never present in leadership situations (at the office, at conferences, at company parties).
    Strategic Planning Questions: What are your organization’s weaknesses? What are the most important times of the production year to focus on discipline? What are the conditions that are most likely to cause you to revert to bad habits, sloppy work, or poor quality service? What can you do to prevent such problems.

While President Grant appears on our $50 bill, and although President Grant’s tenure in office was not completely wasted in scandal and crises, it is General Grant to whom we owe the greatest debt as a nation. We take for granted that the Union was saved by the overwhelming force of the northern armies, but there were many in the north who argued for appeasement, which would have lead to the occupation of this land by two peoples with incongruous views of government, personal liberties and freedoms.

As both a general and a chief executive, U.S. Grant faced his demons squarely and honestly, developed a corresponding discipline that eventually won the day, attempted to repair the damage he felt he had done through decisions he later recognized as being made in poor judgment, and exhibited great compassion and wisdom (at latter particularly at the end of the Civil War). It took a visionary leader to mobilize the massive Union army to victory and an astute leader to foresee the future ramifications of his various options at Appomattox Courthouse.

Grant was much more of a leader, for better and for worse, than what I have listed here. You can expect at least one more post on additional leadership and strategic lessons soon about the general and the president. After all, identifying just six lessons from 38 discs seems woefully lacking.

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