Five Leadership Lessons from Grant

Leading and the core elements of leading are interesting to study. One area that is fascinating to study is military leaders. Their leadership role is much larger for one simple reason – lives are at stake. Military leaders are literally making life and death decisions. It is a responsibility that weighs on them long after the battle or war is over. 

For the rest of us, there are key lessons to be learned in leading from military leaders. I am thankful I do not have to make those types of decisions. One general in particular always stands out to me – Ulysses S Grant. He demonstrated, at the Union’s lowest point in the Civil War, that he could lead and win. 

He showed the resolve to defeat Robert E. Lee, who had become almost mystical, both in the North and South. Lee had become that figure and leader the Union generals fixated upon and were continually thinking about, but could never beat. So, here are five keys Grant did that were different from all the other commanders at that time.

  1. Grant was willing to make decisions – Every other Union commander had been unwilling to fully commit to their decisions. Time and time again, when they had opportunities to strike a critical blow to the Confederacy, Union generals would have self-doubt about a crucial decision. Grant, on the other hand, made decisions and then moved to implement. Leaders make hard decisions.
  2. Grant gave orders – Grant understood the “big picture” and what he wanted to do, and he gave precise orders to make things happen. He understood executing and what needed to be done to win. Grant was not afraid to give orders.
  3. Grant took the initiative – The Union military leadership is replete with stories of how general after general refused to take action. Lincoln would replace many generals because they were unwilling to take the initiative. Grant, on the other hand, would take the initiative and never let up. Grant understood the power of initiative and momentum.
  4. Grant overcame the fear of failing – Grant’s life before the Civil War was unremarkable. Many historians would describe Grant’s life as a failure before the Civil War. Heavy drinking and failed business ventures were Grant’s story before the war. Somewhere in the chaos of war, Grant found the resolve to win. His past did not matter.  What he did at that moment during the Civil War was what was important. Grant mastered his fear of failing. 
  5. Grant understood the consequences – Grant understood the moment he was in and the disgrace if he failed. He was “all in,” and he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. There was no plan B. Grant understood what was at stake in the big picture and if things didn’t go well. He was relentless in his pursuit of destroying Lee and his army. Grant understood the consequences.

All the events and lessons in Grant’s life led to the moment in the Civil War in which he would pursue Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant never gave up or quit because he understood what was at stake. These are leadership lessons we can all use.