Leadership Lessons from History’s Most Unlikely Leader

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He was a drinker, failed as a farmer, went bankrupt and couldn’t get a job.

Even when he became President, many critics said Ulysses S Grant was a dud.

But for the time he served in the Civil War, Grant was respected and promoted through the ranks – to ultimately defeat Robert E Lee and end the Confederacy.

He did so with a special brand of humility and tenacity from which today’s leaders have much to learn.

1. See yourself as someone who is needed, not as someone imposing an agenda.

“There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.”

Like many accomplished people, Grant became noteworthy, not from anything he initiated, but rather, his response to the circumstances in which he lived. Would we know the name of Churchill had it not been for World War Two? Or even the name Gandhi had India not been suppressed? Today – we face many challenges, and need leaders to step up to the plate, not because they call themselves great, but because they are needed.

2. Put things in perspective, knowing that others can take your place.

“There are many men who would have done better than I did under the circumstances in which I found myself. If I had never held command, if I had fallen, there were 10,000 behind who would have followed the contest to the end and never surrendered the Union.”

It may seem odd that General Grant, the solider who won the civil war, would be so lacking in ego. But Grant knew he was replaceable. Fearless on the battlefield, he could have been shot and killed at any time. Part of your job as a team leader or manager is to encourage leadership in others. Leadership is a team exercise.

3. It’s about the company mission or cause, not about you.

“I appreciate the fact, and am proud of it, that the attentions I am receiving are intended more for our country than for me personally.”

During the war, and afterwards, Grant received a great deal of praise. But he put the focus on where it belonged – on the Union, not himself. Whether your cause is customer service, excellence or honesty in business – put it above you. As managers, when we rally our team behind a cause, and not ourselves, it all comes together.

4. Total commitment will win the day.

“If you see the President, tell him from me that whatever happens there will be no turning back.”

Often in life, things turn out to be a lot more difficult than we bargained for – but we have a choice. We can give up, or grit our teeth and meet the challenge. Grant was amazed at how hard it was to defeat Robert E Lee. Even with far more troops and the backing of the United States government – it would take Grant’s own iron will to finally beat down Lee.

History has not been entirely kind to Grant.

He was criticized, and still is today, for being too determined and brutal – to the point where the war cost many more lives than anyone was willing to accept.

But Grant was also forgiving and void of revenge, allowing Lee and his soldiers to go free without imprisonment.

Ulysses S Grant was an ordinary person in extra ordinary times.

Today, we – like Grant, need to answer the calling.

The year was 1864 and Grant took time away from the battle to strike this iconic pose for war photographer Mathew Brady. Grant would lose the battle at Coal Harbor in Virginia, despite having almost twice as many soldiers as Robert E Lee. Nicknamed “The Butcher” by some, he was seen as a hero by others. 

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