Ulysses S. Grant on Leadership

Ulysses S Grant


A crisis can reveal the extraordinary qualities of an apparently ordinary person. Ulysses S. Grant proved he had the ability to preserve the Union through military action and then to heal the country after the Civil War. As a result, he was catapulted to the vanguard of the nation's pantheon of heroes. Unfortunately, he had personal failings that prevented him from achieving lasting greatness.

Lesson No. 1: Share a Vision

Ulysses S. Grant envisioned America as a great power with "peace, happiness, and prosperity at home and the respect of other nations." The nation acclaimed Grant for rescuing the country from dissolution through military prowess. During his presidency (1869-1877), the country experienced substantial economic growth.

Upon accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1869, he declared, "Let us have peace" which became the theme of his administration as well as his epitaph. As president, Grant pardoned many former Confederate leaders but insisted on protecting the full political equality of the former slaves. He appointed the first American Indian to be the head of the Bureau of American Indian Affairs. The former general worked for peace and equality for all Americans. Grant upheld Radical Reconstruction of the South and signed Civil Rights laws. In 1870, he signed the fifteenth amendment that guaranteed the right to vote to all male Americans regardless of race. Americans declared him the equal of Washington and Lincoln in death.

Lesson No. 2: Be a Great Communicator

Grant took pride that he communicated his orders clearly. He tried to speak and write as clearly and plainly as possible so that he would not be understood. He claimed that his written orders were mistaken misinterpreted only twice during the Civil War. Grant wrote his best-selling Memoirs without the help of any ghostwriters.

Grant listened to his subordinates report to him. He listened attentively to all that would be said and then ask questions. Grant learned from listening instead of doing all the talking.

Lesson No. 3: Have Self Esteem

If we don't believe in ourselves, who will believe in us? Grant's childhood nickname was "useless," a play on his middle name, Ulysses. People said he was dumb. However, he was an expert in one area. He could train and ride any horse. Neighboring farmers paid him to break in their horses or to take care of them when they were sick.

A circus ringmaster offered five dollars to anyone who could stay on his pony. Ulysses took up the challenge. The pony raced and bucked. The ringmaster tossed a monkey on the boy's back. The monkey climbed on his head. Ulysses kept his seat. He won the prize. He could do anything if he set his mind to it. At West Point, Ulysses Grant was an outstanding equestrian. He set horse-riding records that stood for decades.

Lesson No. 4: Be Persistent

Ulysses S. Grant became the nation's hero during the Civil War. When he fought a bloody battle at Shiloh in 1862, he refused to retreat and advanced forward. President Lincoln fended off demands for his removal by saying, "I can't spare this man he fights." Grant had a very useful superstition. He did not like to retreat. Grant knew the best way to raise morale in his troops was a victory. The soldiers that fought under him did not mind the losses because by advancing instead of retreating, their bloodshed meant something. They cheered Grant on the evening of May 7, 1864, when ordered a night march south to Spotsylvania Court House instead of withdrawing. Their bloody sacrifices meant something.

Grant a few days later wrote to General Halleck, "I ...propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all the summer." Lincoln, who read this message, told one of his secretaries: "I believe if any other general had been at the head of that army, it would have [retreated and by] now been [back] on this side of the Rapidan. It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins." Grant did not let setbacks that he encountered deter him. The road to success takes persistence and tenacity.

Lesson No. 5: Learn From Failure

Grant could learn from failure in the military sphere. He never made a military mistake twice. Unfortunately, he could not translate these other spheres of life. Grant had resigned from the U. S. Army because of a drinking problem; then he failed as a farmer in Missouri and in managing his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. When the Civil War broke out, Grant returned to serve his country and got a second chance to resume his military career.

Lesson No. 6: Be a Team Leader

After Lincoln appointed Grant General in Chief in March 1864, he coordinated and lead the Union armies to victory. Grant kept Robert E. Lee tied down at Richmond while Union armies could be on the march elsewhere. Grant could see the entire picture without micro-managing his subordinates. For example, General George Meade, the victor of the Battle of Gettysburg, remained commander of the Army of the Potomac even though Grant made his headquarters in the field close by.

Grant gathered good people such as William Tecumseh Sherman to work under him. When Grant was promoted to commander-in-chief, he did not leave behind the subordinates that had served him so well. He did not seek to grab all the glory himself by taking credit for the victories of his subordinates. As a result, other Union armies rolled up the rest of the Confederate armies.

Grant empowered his subordinates. He believed that the best managers were those who could think for themselves. Grant helped his subordinates realize a shared sense of purpose through discussion of the objectives and how each of those objectives was to be implemented. Even in his detailed orders, he wrote they should take advantage of the enemy's weaknesses and retreats without waiting for orders.

Lesson No. 7: Set an Example

When Ulysses S. Grant became president, he like to drive a horse-drawn carriage for recreation. More than occasionally, he went over the speed limit. When a police officer stopped him for speeding, the officer seeing he was the president did not want to issue a speeding ticket. Grant insisted that the police officer do his duty. Nobody is above the law.

Lesson No. 8: Know the Competition

Grant believed that one of the great advantages he derived from his years at West Point and his Mexican War experience was the personal contact with many of the men he would both serve with and oppose during the Civil War. In February 1862, Grant captured Fort Doneleson, Tennessee, giving the Union a major victory. He chose to move against a larger and more entrenched force without waiting for reinforcements. Grant had known the Confederate counterpart General Gideon Pillow in Mexico, "and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any entrenchments he was given to hold."

Lesson No. 9: Have the Courage of Your Convictions

Grant, the head of the Union armies, was approached by Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton asked for Grant's support: "Let's try the Confederate leaders as traitors." Grant said, "No, you can't do it. I gave my word at Appomattox

Court House." Grant's decision helped to heal the country after the Civil War. We are the only nation that did not try rebels against the government or put them to death.

Grant resisted peer pressure for revenge like Abraham Lincoln.

Lesson No. 10: Be a Decision Maker

Grant identified the information he would need and then set about getting it. He would consult with his commanders, go to every part of the battlefield, and then make the decision himself. Grant did not second-guess himself. When he made a mistake, he learned from it and avoided making it the second time. Grant made his headquarters in the field to get first-hand information when appointed commander-in-chief instead of remaining in Washington This way so that he could remain close to the action. Grant listened to his subordinates who had practical experience with the issues at hand. As circumstances changed, he remained flexible in his battle plans. Grant kept himself updated on the doings of his enemies by reading Confederate newspapers.

Lesson No. 11: Show Compassion

As great as he was in War, Grant showed generosity and compassion in peace. He was granted humane and liberal peace terms when Lee surrendered to him on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Even though Grant held all the winning cards, he did not rub the noses of his former enemies. The men and officers were paroled instead of taking prisoner and the officers were permitted to take their private horses and effects which were of no value to the Union but of great importance to them. "[I] t would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to deliver their sidearms. Grant did not take Lee's sword.

Above all, Grant helped to heal the division between the north and south after the Civil War. During the administration of President Andrew Johnson, Grant, the head of the Union armies, was approached by Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton asked for Grant's support: "Let us try the Confederate leaders like Lee and Davis as traitors." Grant said, "No, you can't do it. I gave my word at Appomattox Court House." He threatened to resign if this proposal was carried out. Grant's decision helped to heal the country after the Civil War.

Lesson No. 12: Know your Limitations

Unfortunately, Ulysses S. Grant is representative of the Peter Principle. Unlike George Washington or Dwight D. Eisenhower, he could not translate his ability to create, inspire, and lead a military organization into a successful career transition of leading the nation or becoming a successful businessman. He should have followed the words of his friend and colleague William T. Sherman declared, "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve," when asked to run for president. His administration was tainted by scandals. Although a large sum of money had been raised to give him a comfortable retirement, he did not feel it would satisfy the needs of his family. He unwisely invested in a Wall Street brokerage where a junior partner embezzled the money. Grant could choose good men in the military sphere but not in the civilian sphere. The resulting debacle also ruined several other family members who had followed his lead.

Summary and Conclusion

Ulysses S. Grant demonstrated that an apparently ordinary man can perform under extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, he got a second chance at military glory after being forced to track because of the bout with alcoholism. Unfortunately, he was not a good judge of men off the battlefield. As a result, his star that once shined along with o Washington and Lincoln dimmed.

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