Baylor Expert Shares Four Keys to Leadership from Ulysses S. Grant’s Reflections on Civil War
Baylor University author, military strategy scholar finds lessons in General's memoirs
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WACO, Texas (May 13, 2021) – Near the end of his life, as he battled spiraling health and an empty bank account, former United States President – and iconic Civil War General – Ulysses S. Grant penned his memoirs and gave the world a glimpse into the mind of one of the nation’s most celebrated figures.
The book, “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant,” was published in 1885 and has been pored over for more than 135 years.
Peter Campbell, Ph.D., author, associate professor of political science at Baylor University and a nationally recognized scholar on military strategy and international security, recently wrote an essay about Grant and his memoirs for Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy. He said Grant’s personal reflections provide valuable insights into his view and practice of leadership, specifically as he led Union forces in the Civil War.
Below, Campbell offers four keys to leadership that he found in Grant’s writings.
1. Know Yourself.
Grant was a careful observer of himself. He was able to reflect on his experience, see where he had made errors and learn from them. In July 1861, moments before what Grant thought would be his first engagement as a commander in the Civil War, he was terrified. His heart was in his throat. When he and his forces crested a rise that they thought would reveal the enemy force, they saw that the enemy had fled.
“My heart resumed its place,” Grant wrote. “It occurred to me at once that [the enemy] had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”
Grant absorbed this lesson and it transformed him as a leader and planner.
2. Know Your Enemy.
The great Chinese strategists counseled that commanders must know their enemies. Grant shows us what this looks like in practice. Rather than dwelling on his fears, those things that his opponent might do that would spell disaster, Grant put himself in the shoes of his adversary and asked himself: What would my gravest fears be, were I in his position? He then designed his plan of campaign to raise the specter of his enemy’s fears, knowing that this would compel the enemy to be blinded by fear and compel them to react.
To be fair, this was easier for Grant because in the Civil War he was fighting against fellow graduates of West Point and veterans of the Mexican War, including Robert E. Lee.
Grant was not in awe of Lee.
“I had known [Lee] personally,” Grant wrote, “and knew that he was mortal; and it was just as well that I felt this.”
This does not diminish, but rather reinforces, the importance on studying one’s adversary carefully in any kind of competition.
3. Know Your People.
As Grant rose in the ranks of the Union Army, he was pulled away from the sound of the guns and the command of troops in battle. This is true in any organization – the higher one rises the further one gets from the ground truth, whether in an army or a Fortune 500 company.
Grant recognized that to influence the battles he could no longer superintend, he had to select the right subordinates for the job and then give them the authority to exercise the initiative in their area of responsibility. This meant that Grant also had to be a careful observer of the strengths and weaknesses of his subordinates.
Even a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg like Major General Gouverneur Warren was not spared Grant’s penetrating character assessments. Warren’s weakness, Grant wrote, was that he could not trust his subordinates to carry out his orders, which meant that he could not be give a large command.
“[Warren’s] difficulty was constitutional and beyond his control,” Grant wrote. “He was an officer of superior ability, quick perception, and personal courage to accomplish anything that could be done with a small command.”
When you know your people, you know where to place them where their strengths will reinforce success and their weaknesses will be least disastrous.
4. Unleash the Power of Humility.
The most decisive virtue that Grant practiced was humility. As a leader he did not allow pride in his own designs to blind him to the wisdom of his subordinates.
Late in the war, Grant wrote up a campaign plan for attacking the Shenandoah Valley, the key source of supply to the Confederacy. He brought the plan to General Philip Sheridan for execution. However, when he met with Sheridan, the cavalry officer presented Grant with his own plan.
Grant wrote that Sheridan “was so clear and so positive in his views and so confident of success, I said nothing about [my campaign plan] and did not take it out of my pocket.”
When you lead, don’t let pride get in the way of the best ideas bubbling up from your subordinates.
ABOUT PETER CAMPBELL, PH.D.
Peter Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences. He is the author of two books: “Military Realism: The Logic and Limits of Force and Innovation in the U.S. Army” and “Farewell to the Marshal Statesman: The Decline of Military Experience Among Politicians and its Consequences.” Campbell studies international security, civil-military relations, strategy and national security decision-making, international relations scholarship and policy relevance, insurgency and counterinsurgency, the just war tradition, unconventional warfare and advanced military technology, military culture, and the effects of cyber capabilities on conflict escalation.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
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