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Lincoln on Leadership: How to Hire your General U.S. Grant

Written by: on June 21, 2014

Hiring is both a science and an art. A few times in my career, I have used tried and tested hiring processes by carefully screening candidates, carefully choosing behavioral questions, using multiple panel interviews, and still hiring the wrong person. Lincoln had a similar experience when he found himself hiring multiple generals until he finally found his General Ulysses S. Grant who finally won the war.

Goodwin in Team of Rivals does an excellent job sharing the story of Lincoln’s leadership skills by contrasting Lincoln with the personalities of his Republican presidential nomination rivals William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates (Goodwin, 2006). As she narrates the story of Lincoln’s leadership skills she mentions how frustrated he was with General Meade’s lack of follow through after his victory against General Lee at Gettysburg (Goodwin, 2006 p. 535). After the battle of Gettysburg, Lee was trapped up against the flooded Potomac River and against Lincoln’s order to pursue and finish Lee off – Meade froze and refused to complete the task. Goodwin goes on to quote Lincoln’s conversation with Congressman Henry C. Deming that this event was one of three battles that could have ended the war. The other two were with General McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign and Hooker at Chancellorsville. Lincoln had been disappointed many times by the Generals he chose until he finally found Grant and promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant general to consolidate all the armies of the United States under him.

What was Lincoln’s secret to finally finding a general who could be aggressive and win battles? Lincoln was very clear about what he wanted. He studied and had his own strategy for winning the war. He had a clear objective – win the war and he took personal responsibility to guide the strategy and move generals around until he began to get the results he expected. Lincoln started the war with Winfield Scott in 1861 who was 75 years old and because of his aging disabilities was unable to lead the Union to victory. When it was clear to Lincoln Scott was unable to lead, Lincoln respect him by moving Scott to a figure head position and moved General McDowell to take over. It was soon evident McDowell was overwhelmed and over his head so after 4 months he appointed General McClellan as general-in-chief.

McClellan did a good job training and organizing the troops but was very slow to engage the enemy due to believing he never had enough men or resources to engage. Lincoln would be kind in his words but he was insistent that McClellan must act. Lincoln usually gave his generals 3 to 5 months to get settled into the job and observe how well they followed his direction and achieve results. If they could not act or refused to act and achieve, he would respectfully move them to another position and find a new general to see how they would do. The line of generals was Winfield Scott, Irving McDowell, George McClellan, Henry Halleck, Ambrose Burnside, Nathaniel Banks, Joseph Hooker and Ulysses Grant two and one half years into the Civil war.

What are the leadership principles we can learn from Lincoln’s actions?

  1. Know what you want to accomplish with subordinates. Lincoln had little military background but he did his research and study to know what strategy and goals he had to achieve victory.
  2. Orient and communicate goals and objectives to new hires.
  3. Go out to the battle to see how the general leads and listen to troops and what they have to say about the leader’s effectiveness.
  4. Give clear direction and goals. Observe and give feedback to the results.
  5. If leaders are not performing and following directions, respectfully move them out of the way and find another leader who can accomplish the goal.
  6. Repeat 4 and 5 until you find your Grant.

Lincoln was such a talented leader and we have much to learn about leadership from his many stories! How do you hire the best and find your Grant?

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005

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Mark Steele

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