Insights on leadership aren’t found only in books by modern business icons like Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca. Jay Winik has done a wonderful job sketching the leadership styles of Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln in this fascinating and well written history book.
Although the book concentrates in the final month of the Civil War, Winik does a terrific job of putting that month in perspective. He shows how the roots of the Civil War were sown in the Founding Fathers ambiguous feelings about slavery and the conflicted relationship between states rights and federal power.
The Civil War was the most violent of a series of challenges to federal power by individual states that threatened to split the Union. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was followed in 1814 by Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire toying with the idea of secession over unilateral Federal decisions authorizing the Louisiana Purchase and pursuing the War of 1812. Ironically, it was legislators from southern states who were instrumental in preserving the Union.
The lessons on leadership come in the last two thirds of the book, when Winik takes us on a searing ride of the 19th century in which the leadership styles, motivations and personal demons of Lee, Lincoln and Grant are intimately profiled. One of the traits that each of these men shared with the ability to clearly define their mission, focus intently on a goals, and move towards them regardless of distractions, disappointments and setbacks. Time and again Winik illustrates how common this trait was among the three, and how very rare it was among their contemporaries.
For example, he constructs a picture of Grant as a man who failed at everything he ever did save one – command armies in battle. Grants track record in every other pursuit had no predictive values about his success as a Union general. His initial command was “the worst in Illinois”, but he was able to demonstrate his ability as what we today call a turnaround artist and started winning battles. This lesson alone is enough to justify buying and reading the book.
Grant never allowed the publics mercurial view of him to influence his command decisions. He made decisions objectively, whether he was the darling of high society dinners and balls, or the object of vitriolic newspaper editorials demanding his head. His one over-riding goal was to utterly destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, and he knew that shocking numbers of dead would be the price. Even this did not distract him. Plagued by migraine headaches brought on by the stress of sending men to certain death he would throw himself on his cot following costly battles and sob for hours.
Winik also shows us that victory in the Civil War was the result of challenging the status quo and bringing innovation and creativity to the conflict rather than repeating traditional procedures endorsed by the reigning authorities of the day. Lee, Grant and Lincoln were risk takers who possessed the moral conviction necessary to gamble success or failure on new ideas that others did not have the bravery to stand behind.
These 19th century leaders have lessons relevant to 21st century challenges. Read April 1865. It’s not just a history book.