The reflective leader: A major lesson from the memoirs of U.S. Grant
Grant's memoirs show that self-awareness and honest reflection are crucial to leadership
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 battlefield. “At first some of the officers seemed to think that to be surrounded was to be placed in a hopeless position, where there was nothing to do but surrender. But when I announced that we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well, it seemed a new revelation to officers and soldiers.” And, of course, under their level-headed commander, cutting their way out of the enemy encirclement was exactly what they proceeded to do.
Grant’s habit of reflecting on others as well as himself enabled him to view the prospect of combat against Lee and his lieutenants with more equanimity than was displayed by many Union commanders. One telling example of this occurred after Grant forced the surrender of Fort Donelson in February 1862 (the battle that raised Grant from obscurity). The commander of the Confederate garrison and the second in command escaped from the fort rather than surrender and they left that task to a junior Confederate general named Simon Bolivar Buckner. As it happened, Grant knew Buckner well (decades later, Buckner would be a pallbearer at Grant’s funeral). In his Memoirs, Grant provides us with an amusing exchange he had with Buckner, “he (Buckner) said to me that if he had been in command I would not have got up to Donelson as easily as I did. I told him that if he had been in command I should not have tried in the way I did…”
One reason why Grant benefited from reflection (and especially self-reflection) was that he didn’t let his pride cloud the process. Many people are bad at self-reflection because they are not honest with themselves. Ask a random group of people to rate their performance and ninety percent think they are above average. Grant was not self-delusional. As we saw above, he wasn’t reluctant to admit to fear on the battlefield.
He was also willing to admit to personal failure. When George McClellan left the Army before the Civil War, he rose to wealth and prominence as an executive of a fast growing railroad company. Many West Pointers of the time found success in the civilian world after leaving the Army. In contrast, when Grant left the Army in 1854, he descended to obscurity and poverty and was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis to support his family — and we know this because in his Memoirs he told us about the low points of his life as well as the high points.
Leadership lesson from Grant’s Memoirs
The ability to engage in reflection is vital for leaders because without reflection, experience is worthless. Leadership scholars often speak of crucible moments — those rare and often intense moments that can provide leaders with valuable insights into their nature, their behavior and their potential. But crucible moments, just like normal daily experience, go to waste without honest reflection. A twenty-year career without reflection does not produce twenty years of experience. It yields one year of experience repeated twenty times. Ulysses Grant in his Memoirs gives us a unique glimpse of someone who found that the habit of reflection could serve as a force multiplier for leadership.
Mike Hennelly served in the U.S. Army for 21 years where he qualified as an Army Ranger and certified as an Army strategist. Later, as a civilian with a Ph.D. in strategic management, he taught strategy to MBA students at two different universities and then spent seven years teaching strategy and leadership to cadets at West Point. Since retiring from West Point, he provides seminars on strategic leadership to executives of some of the world’s largest companies.