Lincoln's Leadership Gem

Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?
— President Lincoln to a procrastinating General McClellan

Abraham Lincoln was out of patience. General McClellan had to go. The leader of the U.S. Army had repeatedly delayed engaging Confederate forces. What's more, McClellan had snubbed the President, and though his inactivity disobeyed direct orders.

It was time for a change. When General Burnside, Lincoln's initial replacement, proved ineffective the President turned to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's formal commission occurred on March 9, 1864. President Lincoln's remarks were short and pointed, but they included a gem which every leader should take to heart.

Can you spot it?

General Grant, the nation's appreciation of what you have done, and its reliance upon you for what remains to be done in the existing great struggle, are now presented, with this commission constituting you lieutenant-general in the Army of the United States. With this high honor, devolves upon you, also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need to add, that, with what I here speak for the nation, goes my own hearty personal concurrence.

One overriding difference between McClellan and Grant was their interpretation of the word "responsibility." Lincoln had said,

With this high honor, devolves upon you, also, a corresponding responsibility.

We live in a nation born of sacrifice and raised on responsibility. Those efforts, sustained by the providence of God, have resulted in an enormous harvest of privilege. Today we tout the latter, but ignore the former. I wonder if we have forgotten Lincoln's axiom.

With every honor comes a corresponding responsibility.

Leaders recognize the "high honor" of their position, but the best leaders -- as Lincoln noted -- embrace the "corresponding responsibility" that accompanies it.  As I reflect on my reading of Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters 1839-1865, I want to highlight five essential responsibilities of leadership:

1. The responsibility to think ahead.

Grant's forward thinking is seen in the campaign to take Fort Donelson in February, 1862. He writes, "I knew the importance of the place to the enemy and supposed he would reinforce it rapidly. I felt that 15,000 men on the 8th [of February] would be more effective than 50,000 a  month later….and we started."

Grant was proactive. He thought ahead, "What might my enemy do?" Then took appropriate action. Leaders think ahead.

The march on Fort Donelson also revealed the misery that falls on those who fail to think ahead. Grant writes,

"The greatest suffering was [not from enemy fire, but] from want of shelter. It was midwinter and during the siege [of Fort Donelson] we had rain and snow, thawing and freezing alternatively. It would not do to allow camp-fires…. In the march over from Fort Henry numbers of the men had thrown away their blankets and overcoats. There was therefore much discomfort and absolute suffering.

Thinking only of the moment, the imprudent soldiers tossed their heavy overcoats, only to suffer in the cold for their lack of foresight. In big matters and little, leaders think ahead.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.
— Proverbs 22:3 NLT


  • When are you regularly taking time to think ahead?
  • What should you be thinking about?


2. The responsibility to work hard.

"The world is run by tired men," is one of my favorite axioms from Oswald Sanders' classic text, Spiritual Leadership. His essential point? Leadership is hard work.

Grant understood the tenacious pace of leadership as revealed in this incident from May 3, 1863.

When I reached Grand Gulf May 3d I had not been with my baggage since the 27th of April and consequently had had no change of underclothing, no meal except such as I could pick up sometimes at other headquarters, and no tent to cover me. The first thing I did was to get a bath, borrow some fresh underclothing . . . . Then I wrote letters to the general-in chief . . . dispatches to be telegraphed . . . orders to General Sullivan . . . . About twelve o'clock at night I was through my work and started for Hankinson's ferry, arriving there before daylight.

I need to re-read this passage when I'm singing the blues. Leadership is hard work. Paul knew that. His work for Christ was equally arduous:

. . . with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
2 Corinthians 11:23-29 ESV

Bill Hybels makes a helpful distinction between that which is "doable hard" and "destructive hard." Breakthroughs accompany the former; burnout the latter.

Question: What is the "hard" in your work? Are you giving yourself to it or running from it?

3. The responsibility to assess talent

"Two are better than one" writes Solomon, but only to the extent the second is competent. Gathering competent leaders requires assessing leaders. Grant's memoirs are replete with candid assessments of his staff. As you will see he is both effusive with his praise and unflinching in his criticism:

  • On his long-time aide, brigadier-general and chief-of-staff, Rawlings: "He was an able man, possessed of great firmness, and could say "no" so emphatically to a request which he thought should not be granted that the person he was addressing would understand at once that there was no use of pressing the matter. General Rawlings was a very useful officer." (Grant's Personal Memoirs, 169)
  • On General Floyd: "The commanding officer, who was a man of talent enough for any civil position, was no soldier and, possibly, did not possess the elements of one." "Johnston made a fatal mistake in entrusting so important a command to Floyd, who he must have known was no soldier even if he possessed the elements of one." (Grant's Personal Memoirs, 206, 218)
  • On General Pillow: "Was conceited, and prided himself much on his services in the Mexican War." (Grant's Personal Memoirs, 206)
  • On General Buckner: "Who was third in rank in the garrison but much the most capable soldier." (Grant's Personal Memoirs, 206)
  • On General Smith: "His death was a severe loss to our western army. His personal courage was unquestioned, his judgment and professional acquirement were unsurpassed, and he had the confidence of those he commanded as well as those over him." (Grant's Personal Memoirs, 221)

Assessing talents incorporates great levels of discernment. Some leaders seem to possess this quality innately while others must rely on advisors and diagnostic tools. The essential task is making the good call. Prayer should be an obvious "tactic," though the obvious is often ignored.

Question: Do you have an assessment process for on-boarding, for progress evaluations, and for fit? Who do you know who does this well? How can you glean this wisdom?

4. The responsibility to make decisions

Harry Truman, the President on whose desk sat the sign, "The buck stops here," recognized the responsibility for decision-making fell to him. In his Farewell Address To The American People he said:

The greatest part of the President's job is to make decisions--big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day. The papers may circulate around the Government for a while but they finally reach this desk. And then, there's no place else for them to go. The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.

Leaders make decisions. Its what they do. Grant's "I want" letter to Major-General Halleck demonstrates that he understood his role in the decision-making process.

"I am sending General Sheridan for temporary duty whilst the enemy is being expelled from the border. Unless General Hunter is in the field in person, I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field." City Point, VA., August 1, 1864, 11:30 A.M.

Understanding the importance of decision-making is significantly different from making a decision. Most leaders need help for that. Here are two posts that can help:

5. The Responsibility To Say "Thanks" And Give Credit

Max De Pree, former CEO for Herman Miller, said, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor."

As a seasoned general and soldier, Grant was accustomed to "defining reality." What may surprise some is his readiness to give credit.

Grant's memoirs are highlighted with praise given to others for their exceptional service.

  • About General Sheridan: "Except for his prompt pursuit, so much [capture of prisoners, artillery, and small arms that day] would not have been accomplished." (Memoirs, 447)
  • About General Sherman: "His untiring energy and great efficiency during the campaign entitle him to a full share of all the credit due for its success." (Memoirs, 364)
  • About General Canby: "His character was as pure as his talent and learning were great. His services were valuable during the war, but principally as a bureau officer." (Memoirs, 763)
  • About General Sherman: "It was clearly Sherman, and to him also belongs the credit of [the march from Atlanta to Savannah's] brilliant execution." (Memoirs, 652)

Saying "thanks" and giving credit are never-ending tasks of leadership. Who deserves your congratulation, your recognition, your appreciation, or your praise?

Highs and Lows

Ulysses S. Grant has been the subject of ridicule and praise. He entered the office of the President a four-star general. He left with a tarnished reputation. He knew highs and lows. A year before he left office, he wrote the following to James M. Comly.

If it would be possible in any way for me to make a sacrifice for the American people, I would like to repay them by some sacrifice for the great honors they have conferred on me.

If scandals marked his administration so did a desire for sacrifice and service. As Al Kaltman notes in his work, Cigars, Whiskey & Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant,

When he agreed to head the Republican ticket in 1868, Grant was a four-star general, the first American to achieve that rank. As such, he was guaranteed a lifetime job with an income that freed him from financial worries. He knew that if he left the army he would have to forfeit that security and face an uncertain financial future. After leaving the White House, he would be unemployed and without a source f income, since ex-presidents received no pension at that time. What Grant couldn't have known was how great his sacrifice would be.

None of us know fully the sacrifice that awaits us as leaders, but if we embrace the responsibility the honor entails, we can rest confident before God and people that we have done our duty. 


  1. "Will you pardon me . . ." from Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. Page 485.
  2. "General Grant, the nation's appreciation . . ." from Grant: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Selected Letters 1839-1865. New York: Library of America. 1990. Page 469.
  3. "The greatest suffering . . . from Personal Memoirs, page 198.
  4. "The world is run by tired men . . ." from Spiritual Leadership, by J. Oswald Sanders. Page 144.
  5. "When I reached Grand Gulf . . ." from Personal Memoirs, page 327.
  6. Doable hard vs destructive hard . . . from Axiom, by Bill Hybels.
  7. "The greatest part of the President's job . . ." from "The President's Farewell Address to the American People," January 15, 1953. Accessed March 21, 2018
  8. "I am sending General Sheridan . . ." from Memoirs, 615.
  9. "The first responsibility of a leader . . ." from Max De Pree,  Leadership Is An Art.
  10. "Sacrifice for the American people. . ." from Cigars, Whiskey & Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant by Al Kaltman. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press. 1998. Page 302.
  11. "When he agreed to head the Republican ticket . . ." from Cigars, Whiskey & Winning. Page 303.