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Business and Life Lessons from Ulysses S. Grant

August 4, 2021 Jeff Bradford

I just finished Grant, a massive biography of the Civil War general and two-term president written by Ron Chernow. It is a well-written book that I am thoroughly enjoying and learning from. In addition to learning about the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant, I am also picking up some business and life lessons, which I’ll share in this article.

Ulysses Grant on the $50 bill.

Tactics beat strategy

Grant was a successful general in the Civil War because he focused on making things happen, not waiting for a grand strategy to materialize, like other Union generals. In business, I’ve noticed that the people who want to talk about strategy and overarching themes actually don’t get much done. You’re more likely to reach your goal if you do things, not just plan them.

As Winston Churchill said, “I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.”

Adapt, adapt, adapt

A focus on tactics over strategy does not mean you shouldn’t have a plan, of course – and your plan should include alternative actions if things don’t turn out like you planned. Things rarely go as planned on the battlefield, and Grant always had a back-up plan to rely on when the situation changed. He was able to quickly adapt his tactics to deal with reality.

Keep moving, even if you’re not making progress

At the Battle of Vicksburg, a turning point in the war, Grant was stymied at first, as the city was well-fortified and geographically situated such that it was difficult to attack without Union forces being destroyed. So, he tried lots of things, some of them wild-haired, like digging a channel to bypass an oxbow in the Mississippi River. In the end, none of these ideas worked, but it kept his men busy so they stayed sharp while Grant and his generals planned and executed a more traditional approach that did succeed.

Don’t let others define who you are

Grant was pretty much a dismal failure until the Civil War gave him the chance, at the mid-point of his life, to use his natural talents as a military genius and leader. Before that, his father wanted him to take over his business, so Grant gave that a try, running a country store for a few years. He was awful at it. He had no business being in business, but he was only there because someone else tried to make him who they thought he should be.

Up close and personal is harder than the 50,000 feet view

Even though he regularly saw hundreds, even thousands of men die during a battle, Grant didn’t suffer emotionally until he would come upon individual soldiers who had been wounded or killed – that’s when it became real for him. It’s the same in business: laying off hundreds of people is a piece of cake compared to talking with one of the people who lost their job.

Writing ability is important

I’ve written in the past about writing ability being the most important skill a business executive can possess, because being able to think and communicate clearly is the essence of leadership. Grant was an excellent writer and this skill not only allowed him to clearly direct the actions of battalions, but it also saved his family from penury upon his death. His autobiography, which we wrote during the final months of his life, became a national best seller and the royalties supported his family when he was gone.

Look for reasons why, not why not

Until Grant rose in the ranks and captured Lincolns’ attention, Union generals spent most of their time coming up with reasons why they couldn’t attack. The most famous of these “why not” generals was George McClellan, whom Lincoln relieved of duty after he failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s army following the inconclusive Union victory at the Battle of Antietam – McClellan’s final failure in a long string of dilly dallying. Grant kept attacking, no matter what.

I think it is possible to learn more from Grant than from other famous men like George Washington, for example, because Grant was a flawed hero. He had a hard time finding his place in life, he was somewhat of an alcoholic, was often depressed and his presidency was marred by scandal. He is relatable because of his flaws. He is like the rest of us. The key takeaway here for leaders, I believe, is to never give up. Don’t let a failure keep you down. If you keep moving forward, the chances are good that you will eventually succeed.

(Originally published in Forbes.)

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