I hope you are in the middle of enjoying a fun and relaxing Memorial Day weekend with family and friends. As Memorial Day has gravitated over time to mark the unofficial start of summer in the United States, it is still an important annual event to pause and reflect on all of those who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln “gave the last full measure of devotion” to our country, so that we as a nation can continue to enjoy liberty and freedom each and every day.
The approach of this weekend got me to think about the origins of Memorial Day. As it would turn out, Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day”, and started shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War in the late 1860s. It was organized by Union veterans, and the ceremony typically was to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers as a tribute to their sacrifice. This observation became an annual ritual, and occurred at the end of May in part based on flowers being in bloom across the country at this time. After World War I, the observance was expanded to honor all those who died in all American wars, not just the Civil War, and the holiday began to take on the name Memorial Day. It was not until the 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, and scheduled to take place on the last Monday in May each year.
This made me think further about Decoration Day, and the fact that had the Union not won the Civil War, they may not have started the Decoration Day tradition. Furthermore, the Union probably would have not won the war had it not been for the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant. This made me want to dig deeper into key leadership traits that Grant possessed, from his time as a cadet at West Point, and all the way through his presidency. Compared to most books about Grant, Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant by Al Kaltman is a great, light-hearted read that is a wonderful collection of anecdotes and lessons learned during Grant’s military career. The beauty of this collection is that while the Civil War took place 150 years ago, many of Grant’s leadership lessons still apply today, for business, home, and volunteer activities.
Surround Yourself With Good People
As most legends describe Grant, he is portrayed as being quite a heavy drinker, and as a result, many questioned his ability to lead the Army into such important battles. When Grant was promoted to brigadier general, he named John Rawlins as his adjutant. Rawlins was historically quick to defend Grant. In a letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne, Rawlins strongly emphasized that statements about Grant’s drinking were false, and could have originated only in malice. However, in June 1863, while in the midst of the Vicksburg campaign, Rawlins became concerned, and had reason to believe, that Grant had taken to the bottle. Even though Grant was the commanding officer and superior within the ranks of the Army to Rawlins, Rawlins took Grant to task in challenging his drinking. At one point in his letter to Grant, Rawlins wrote “This may surprise you, for I may be (and trust I am) doing you an injustice by unfounded suspicions, but if an error it better be on the side of this country’s safety than in fear of offending a friend.”
Grant’s lesson learned was an important one – to surround yourself with men and women of unquestioned integrity, and have the courage to tell you when they think what you’re doing is wrong. You may not like or agree with the message they are conveying, but you will be better off for having heard it.
Management By Walking Around (MBWA)
This would be a favorite of business author Tom Peters – Unlike some of his predecessors at the head of the Union Army, Grant made great efforts to make himself accessible to the troops under his command. He often engaged the rank and file in conversation and lighthearted humor. His connection to the troops helped build their trust and loyalty to the Army’s commanding officers, and in turn was instrumental in the Union’s victories on the battlefields. The lesson learned from these experiences is that it is important for managers and supervisors at every level in an organization to circulate through “work areas” (Are battlefields and offices synonymous? Maybe in some companies!) and see for yourself what’s happening with the resources that report into you. Just being seen by “the troops” can be a morale builder when they see the interest you have in their work and commitment to the organization, as well as opportunities for dialogue that might not otherwise present themselves.
We Win As a Team
In early 1862, Grant lead a successful, aggressive campaign at the Battle of Fort Donelson, a victory that helped elevate him to the rank of major general, and opened the Cumberland River. This was a strategically important avenue for Union troops to invade the South. During the campaign, however, Grant requested that General William T. Sherman, who at the time was a superior officer in the Union Army, to send reinforcements and supplies to Grant, which ultimately helped win the battle at Fort Donelson. With every wave of supplies and reinforcements that reached Grant, Sherman included correspondence offering any assistance he could provide, and stated that if he could be of service at the front that Grant could request him to do so, and that Sherman would waive rank. The lesson to be learned from the Battle at Fort Donelson is that you should never let your title or position get in the way of accomplishing a larger task, especially when your job involved helping others do theirs. When you are not concerned about who individually gets the credit for the work, a great deal can be accomplished by the group.
Grant would be the first to admit that he faced his share of challenges throughout his career, specifically in his time away from the military between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. However, when he reenlisted in the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, it became an opportunity for him to apply many of the lessons learned thus far in his career, and those lessons translated into key victories for the Union over a four year period. So this Memorial Day weekend, when we pause to remember all the fallen soldiers from all American wars, taken an extra moment to thank General Grant and his leadership during the Civil War. Without his stewardship over the Union Army, we might not be celebrating this weekend at all.