Did God put Grant on earth to rid America of slavery? My wife asked me that question as we watched the new 2020 documentary about Ulysses S. Grant. I studied Grant my whole military career and I had never thought about Grant’s destiny. Like most famous history-makers who stood against an injustice, I will admit Grant fits the model. A boy that shows little promise, then a man unsure of where he wants to go in life. Grant is tested, found lacking and tested again like a Greek hero. His life is full of failure and setback. Finally, he is angered about an injustice – for him slavery and the secession movement that followed the election of the new prophet in the new Republican party. Grant puts on his old uniform and his purpose is clear. War settles his mind and with full focus, Grant marches forward with his regiment from the land of Lincoln and never stops until he rebuilds the Union by conquest

I have had the misfortune of being a general’s aide de camp or military assistant four times, but had the fortune of getting to study dozens of generals up close because of those assignments. This article describes the very rare leadership style of Grant. I call it rare because I have seldom observed it all in one person. If you have not read Grant’s memoirs, Chernow’s recent book, or watched the new documentary, I highly recommend it to you, especially if you are a student of leadership.

Grant Shows Us What Leadership Looks Like

What makes Grant successful and makes his soldiers proud to have served under him? First, Grant is not a “by the book” Army officer. Ask any soldier or sergeant how much they enjoy a “by the book” officer, especially a West Pointer…that’s a quick “not so much” reply. The leader who knows how to act and talk like a wise grandfather (or a fun uncle at times), and also to do what needs to be done, despite any bureaucratic norms to the contrary, will gain respect.

An easy way to show your team you care is to show them that no task or job is beneath them. If something hard or dirty needs to be done, and it is important, then lead by example. My grandfather, like Grant, used to haul firewood around the county to sell. He was one of the most respected men I have ever met. The best generals I saw in action were always willing to lead where and when it made an impact on their force.

Don’t let failure stop your momentum. You will fail, do not panic. Find your calm amongst the chaos like Grant did. Look at the situation, think about the options and make the adjustments needed to get your team to the goal-line. No personal or group failure can stop you if you focus on figuring out the problem and finding a new solution. Study the problem well and the solutions will be obvious.

You don’t have all the answers. You will learn that fast as a leader. Learn to give the power to find solutions to your team. If you empower them and learn who you can trust, your team will surprise you in many good ways. An empowered team that knows you care about them and trust them will follow you to hell with a squirt gun and a mischievous grin.

Know what you are up against. In war we think about studying the opposition’s leaders. In business or diplomacy, it is the same. We all have competitors. You need to spend the time learning how they think and when they have lost their will to fight. If you study others you will know how to outmaneuver them and when to surprise them.

Lead imperfectly, with humility. People will remember you and talk with pride about serving with you if you can learn to humbly motivate your team. They don’t need to think you are perfect, they need to see you know your limits and your competencies. No one likes a braggart or cold tough guy. Laugh when it helps, be honest at all times, and let them know you need them…and you know it.

Learn constantly and apply your lessons. If you are always studying yourself and the environment, you will be able to do what others don’t expect you to do. It is important that you are able to find the critical path to any problem or project—the most critical steps towards success. There are always some key tasks that must be done, and if you are able to see the long-term goal and remain calm in the confusion, you can find the critical path. Knowing the key tasks allows you to deviate from the typical route and still get them done in unexpected ways. That allows you to seize and retain the initiative whenever your team gets stuck. If you know the options and you exploit them like Grant did, you will prevail.

Resilience matters, because you won’t win every battle. Grant proves that if you keep getting up off the ground, your opponents will realize you cannot be beaten. But getting up repetitively is not an individual sport. Leadership is much easier if you have trusted peers, mentors, and lieutenants. Grant had Lincoln and Sherman, people who saw his worthy heart and worked to protect him from his detractors and faults. So, find a Sherman: You need a trusted confidant that is willing to fight as hard every day to help the team as you are.

Don’t let any vice or flaw define you. You are imperfect, unless you are walking across your swimming pool as you read this. So, don’t let others decide who you are or what limits you. Own up to your flaws and work to improve them. If you have a vice, don’t let it become a negative stereotype that controls you…control yourself.

When I earned my commission as an Army officer my wife gave me a replica of the “Donelson Sword” that was given to Grant after his first major victory at Fort Donelson. It was the Union’s first major victory, too. I have never bought a sword or worn one with my uniform in my 23 years, but the Grant replica has a place of honor amongst my books. Grant inspires me every time I study his life.

When Lieutenant Grant started to court his future wife, he would ride on to the estate past her father’s 30 slaves. I doubt any of those slaves watched him on his horse and thought, that man will fail 100 times in life, but one day will lead the war to free us from slavery. No great leader knows what lies ahead and no spectator can spot your destiny. If you follow some of these Grant lessons, you can ensure you are ready if destiny calls.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.