Multiplication Center

Grant by Jean Edward Smith – A Review

June 22, 2010

I got turned onto this book because a CEO of a major corporation said he was reading it and it would be worth the time.

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Every year I try to read a few military, presidential or political biographies for Leadership purposes. Both types of leaders have to lead very large institutions and as much as you think they might have command and control authority, most of the leadership actually comes from influence.

A well written biography for me shows us the persons great strengths and their great weaknesses. They accomplished much because of both and both are instructive.

Living in the southern United States amongst various battlefields always draws one to the American Civil War histories. I have read the biographies of most of the major generals on both sides and of both presidents. Grant is an excellent bridge character.

On the one hand, the Union Army accelerated its victories under Grant’s leadership but Grant was wise to protect much of the South’s Army, especially its officers, knowing that peace was coming and the nation would need healing. Further, he was pressed into the Presidency after the failings of Andrew Johnson.

Grant is generally remembered as a failed president, but a close examination of his two terms will show a few spectacular failings but lots of good things despite very difficult circumstances.

Some takeaways:

  1. I never had grasped how much Grant modeled his military style and operations from his mentor in the Mexican War – Zachary Taylor. His tactics and strategies learned from Taylor carried him to great victories in the future conflicts. Grant was not a star pupil at West Point, but Taylor saw something in him to nurture. And the emphasis on supply lines was well learned by Grant.
  2. Grant, even when he was the commanders of all the Armies, traveled and “lived” very simply. It was said that he had a simple breakfast, such as a cucumber sliced with vinegar. He had two small tents, one for sleeping and one for meetings with other generals. A few chairs, a writing table. This was contrasted to many other generals, on both sides, who had elaborate staffs and headquarters operations.

Grant’s example is to travel light.

3. This was the age before much of the electronic communication. Telegraph lines existed but were unreliable. Grant was apparently the master of clear, concise, written communications, a gift I wish I could develop more. His orders were clear to understand for the other units. And coordinating lots of fighters over a wide terrain, takes clear and reliable communication. I think of that often with my own dispersed staff. I have the advantage of telephones, video calls and the like, but clear assignments in writing are invaluable.

4.Take initiative – whether on the battlefield or the Executive Office, Grant believed in seizing opportunities and “taking the fight to the enemy.” His sources of biggest frustrations were generals that waited for conditions to change and be just right, instead of taking the fight directly to the front lines when the enemy was vulnerable. To put it in modern terms, when the momentum is with you, keep the lines moving forward.

Not a short book, but well written and well paced between Grant’s early days as an Army officer, his failure as a private citizen, his organization of volunteers that vaulted him into war leadership and ultimately the Presidency. I would commend it to you as a great vacation book.

Dave Travis

Managing Director

Leadership Network

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