On Grant

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Back in my electric-fish-research days I found myself in a small pond near Makoku, Gabon. Having noticed a faint squeaking noise, I investigated, looking for the source. After five minutes of careful searching I discovered it: A frog, caught in the mouth of a very long green snake, dangling from a tree roughly two feet from my face.

Sometimes, the most difficult things to see are the ones directly in front of our eyeballs.

Another example: After more than two decades of ongoing investigation into business strategy and how to formulate it, I only recently noticed an odd anomaly: how seldom business strategies are cast in a context of beating other companies. Sure, many include “competitive analysis” among the influencing factors, but very few have strategies that are actually formulated to beat the competition.

Which brings us to the strange case of General Ulysses S. Grant.

In the standard version of history most of us grew up with, General Robert E. Lee was a brilliant strategist and tactician who almost beat the Union army against near-insurmountable odds. Grant, in contrast, was a plodding soldier with a drinking problem, who would have won the war if he’d slept through it, given his twin advantages of overwhelming numbers and the Union’s greater economic strength.

In the standard version, that is to say, the Union’s winning strategy had nothing to do with the effective use of armed forces — it was nothing more complicated than building a bigger army and a stronger economy.

It’s all bunk. Grant beat Lee because Grant out-generalled Lee. He was the better strategist, the better tactician, the better logician, and the better leader. Which is where this subject connects to you: If, as leader of an information technology organization, you have any interest in any of these subjects, or for that matter any interest in the Civil War as it actually happened, read Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs.

That the story of Lee’s superiority is the result of simple myth-making is an inescapable conclusion once you read Grant — not because Grant indulges in self-aggrandizement, but because he describes his and Lee’s strategies, tactics, logistics, and troop strengths in each important battle with such clarity and detail that no other conclusion is possible.

Grant won because he was the better general. He understood that to take the offensive is to choose the battleground and gain the advantage, and how to deploy his troops to provide his own side with maximum opportunity while denying alternatives to his opponent.

He was also a superior leader, by the measure of his age or our own. If you read Grant just to gain better insight into leadership you’ll find the investment is time well-spent. Grant’s constant focus was to build a superb fighting force, led into battle by the best officers he could find, train and promote. He understood the critical role played by morale, and that the best way to build morale is to win. Grant reserved his disdain for timid officers unwilling to take risks, and especially for the political generals who gained command, not through ability but through social maneuvering in Washington.

Grant understood how to develop talent, and how, when, and how much to delegate: In some situations he wrote detailed orders of battle for subordinates and followed up carefully and repeatedly, while with others, such as Sherman and Sheridan, he wrote only the most general statements of objectives, knowing that they could be trusted to make the best decisions possible without the need for close supervision.

He also understood the importance of information technology: Whenever any of his battalions established a position, a corps of engineers immediately linked it into a telegraphic network, allowing all of his commanders to communicate their situations instantly. This innovation conferred a huge advantage to the Union army, as Lee relied exclusively on messengers to obtain information from his own forces.

Grant’s misfortune was that his mediocrity as president has tainted the memory of his achievements in the Civil War. It appears the skills needed for generalship and those needed for high political office were (and still are) different:

To be a great general, you have to lead troops to victory against a defined opponent. Political leaders, on the other hand, often have to lead when there’s no opponent to provide a focal point for action.

I don’t know which of the two is easier or harder. You have to wonder, though, why it is that so many businesses, which rarely lack for opponents in a competitive economy, adopt “strategies” that have nothing at all to do with maneuvering to beat their competitors.