This year (2014) marks the 150th anniversary of several major turning points in the American Civil War that would lead to its conclusion the following spring. Symbolic of the coming end to the war were the selection of the two men who would lead the Union to victory in April of 1865. In March of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general-in-chief of the Union Army. And on November 9 of that year, Abraham Lincoln was reelected as President and, of course, commander-in-chief.

That these two men would together lead the North to victory and restore the Union is all the more amazing when one considers their prior failures in business. Grant failed repeatedly and Lincoln failed at business and politics, repeatedly. (He did enjoy success as a lawyer, however.)

This week, our Monday Motivation is a brief look at how these men were able to put failure behind them, and to learn from lessons they taught that still can inspire us 150 years later.

Ulysses S. Grant: Keep moving forward

Prior to the Civil War, Grant was a serial business failure. He failed at farming, bill collecting and leather tanning. But he became a living example of a philosophy that teaches steadfastness and refusal to let failing define one as a failure. He was the embodiment of what, 80 years later, would be implored  by Winston Churchill during World War 2, when he said, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Grant served as the general who, for Lincoln, never gave in. When the Union needed someone to step up, to lead the Army, it was Grant who Lincoln looked to, and who, finally, carried out his wishes.

But even after his promotion, he still failed miserably at the battle of the Wilderness, suffering heavy losses and coming under media fire for being a “butcher.” But unlike other Union generals before him, Grant did not let defeat stop him. As Ken Burns wrote in the script of his 1989 documentary, The Civil War, “What was different about Grant became clear the next morning, when he gave the order to march. For the first time after a defeat, the Army of the Potomac was moving forward.”

Lesson: Keep looking for a way to make it work. Don’t stop when a battle is lost. The war can still be won.

Abraham Lincoln: Lead with dignity, humility and humanity

Though the degree of Lincoln’s pre-war failures is still debated, his ability to overcome many challenges during his life surely contributed to his genius as a leader during the war. While books have been written with long lists of examples of such leadership, here’s one any business owner or manager should know, and be inspired by.

In her biography of Lincoln and his war-time cabinet, Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks of Lincoln’s use of “hot letters” — angry missives he would write in the wake of some failure he would observe by those under his command. But unlike those of us who are quick to hit “send” on an angry email, Lincoln would put such “hot letters” aside. She gives as an example the refusal of Gen. George Meade to pursue the retreating Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Later that afternoon, Lincoln wrote a frank letter to General Meade … (stating) that he was ‘distressed immeasurably’ by ‘the magnitude of the misfortune involved in (Gen. Robert E.) Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.’ Before sending the letter, which he knew would leave Meade disconsolate, Lincoln held back as he often did when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle. In the end, he placed the letter in an envelope inscribed: ‘To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.'”

Lesson: In this era of Twitter, you have limitless opportunities to make your disappointment known by everyone. But should you? Rarely in the heat of the moment. “Never sent, or signed,” is often the better mark of a great leader.

(Feature image via Wikipedia)

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