Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision

Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage and Vision (Written by: H.W. Crocker III)Last week on our blog, Jill Hermans recapped Faith Technologies’ fifth annual High-Potential Event. The event consisted of a select group of emerging leaders within the company who have been identified by their managers and peers as future leaders, and to say it was a success would be an understatement. Employees left the two-day retreat recharged, informed, engaged, and excited about growth within the company. 

I have the good fortune of being part of the team who spearheads this annual event, and one small piece of it involved a book discussion. This year we chose to discuss the book, Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage and Vision, written by H.W. Crocker III. The book recapped the historical American Civil War, a very tragic moment in U.S. history, and our discussion group was left intrigued at the leadership parallels and challenges Lee faced while leading the Confederacy’s military.

Crocker did a great job of chronicling Lee’s upbringing, along with his battlefield and business experience. Organized in 11 short chapters, one of the biggest take-a-ways from the book could be found at the end of every chapter where he listed, “Lee’s Lessons.” Below are a few (there were 51 total from all 11 chapters) that resonated with the group: 

  • Accept life as it is and make the best of it. “Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage.”
  • Leadership is legitimized by success under fire. To be a leader, one cannot wait on the sidelines. One has to take responsibility, enter the fray, and prove that one has the resourcefulness, ability, and character to get things done.
  • A good leader is humble. He guards against ego distorting his vision. A leader has to achieve his army’s or his business’s or his team’s goals, not his private ones. A leader’s role is one of service.
  • A leader has the integrity to face facts, and the courage not to be intimidated by them.
  • A leader keeps his strategic plans simple, and his chain of command streamlined.
  • A leader’s one unalterable rule: assess circumstances and make the best of them.
  • People matter, individuals matter. No system, however well-oiled, and no leader, however omni-competent, can afford to ignore the importance of personnel and having the right people in the right posts.
  • A leader needs to remember that even the best soldiers can be pushed too far and their limits strained. As Lee told Longstreet the day after the battle of Gettysburg, “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”
  • A leader seizes the opportunities of the day – carpe diem.
  • A leader knows when to put himself on the front line to inspire his people.
  • A leader does his own reconnaissance. There is no substitute for knowing the ground or for knowing the realities of the marketplace.

Working in the construction/contracting/engineering business, Faith Technologies’ employees are often met with changing circumstances with limited resources. They have to think on their feet, and work with others to accomplish the needs of our customers.

This was exactly what Lee did throughout his career, and what “Lee’s Lessons” describe. Lee continuously positioned himself to capitalize on the strengths of his people, and did the most with the resources that were available. Sounds much like business today, doesn’t it?

Our discussion group enjoyed reading this book, and highly recommended it. The consensus was that it was very thought provoking, and a good way to examine the ever-present business lessons that can be found regardless of time, technology, or historical backdrop.

Lee’s character made him win the favor of both the Union and Confederate armies – both before and after the war. He was a fascinating leader to study, and one that provoked a healthy discussion for our emerging leaders.