By Michael Hennelly, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest columnist
I recently went to Amazon’s book section and found, to my surprise, that it offers 23 different biographies of Ulysses Grant. One of those biographies stood out. It offered strikingly unique insights into leadership because it was written by Grant himself. The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant provides leadership lessons that can be obtained nowhere else.
Civil War histories and Grant biographies give the impression that one of Grant’s most valuable qualities was his relative imperturbability. The fact that he did not get agitated during the course of the war was a characteristic noticed by many of his subordinates. Sherman would always remember Grant’s steadiness after that first horrible day at Shiloh.
Reading Grant’s memoirs, however, made me realize that focusing on this aspect of Grant is unsatisfactory in the context of leader development. Recommending Grant’s trait of imperturbability to other leaders is the biographical equivalent of a “Keep Calm” poster. One of the key insights of his Memoirs is that Grant taught himself to be steady amid the chaos, uncertainty and bloodshed of warfare by his habit of engaging in reflection. He was willing to spend time reflecting on his experiences and he became very good at it. As his example clearly demonstrates, the process of reflection is both achievable and valuable for people interested in developing themselves as leaders.
Grant knew that he could perform effectively in combat because he had proved it several times in the Mexican War. Grant, though, had never led a large unit of soldiers in battle until the Civil War and his first experience at this remained fixed in his memory. He writes of his heart being in his throat as he marched his regiment towards a Confederate encampment — and eventually finding their camp abandoned. Grant tells us, “My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris 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. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting the enemy.”
Reflecting on his own behavior, in this case, enabled him to think clearly about his command responsibilities in the face of the enemy and this lesson quickly paid dividends. Only four months later, Grant and his command found themselves surrounded by Confederates on the…