First of all, Happy New Year to all readers!
I do appreciate the small, steady stream of visitors even in the absence of my writing and updates. For me, the second half of 2010, particularly after my vacation in September, was full of 60-80 hour work weeks and a number of challenges on multiple projects. In the little spare time I had outside of spending time with family, I decided to devote more time to reading rather than writing and I ended the year finishing three outstanding books that share a common thread of discussion and reflection on leadership. Those books are: the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Lee: The Last Years, and Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity.
U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs were written himself just prior to his death by cancer in 1885 -- now over 125 years ago. The other two books are retrospectives on their main characters. The most common personal characteristic I have found in Grant, Lee and Churchill is their ability to link history to their present circumstances and then, with great breadth of vision, take action based on a grander strategy than what few of their contemporaries could have or would have conceived.
History in these mens' cases should not be thought of only on the scale of a nation or region, but also in terms of organizations and institutions. When entering a company or institution or organization, we may not explicitly consider or reflect on it, but from the first day we are dealing with remnants of the historical legacy established within the organization we have joined. As a result, to provide leadership and to bring about positive change in these environments, an understanding of their history at multiple levels and of how things came to be the way they are at the present is critical.
In Grant's Personal Memoirs, as he tells the story of his return to the Army, his frustration with military leadership in the Union Army is clear as he gains responsibility and promotion after each successful battle. His kinship with General Sherman, a military visionary and strategist himself, is evident as they wield their forces under a single, unified strategy to defeat those forces of the Confederate South. Throughout, the resourcefulness of the Northern people and states supplies them overwhelmingly with everything they need to ensure the execution of their strategy is successful--a larger population from which to draw soldiers, the latest technology in bringing forth supplies and in enhancing front line communications, the latest in modern weaponry and innovations in the Northern economy to provide agricultural products with less labor, freeing up more war personnel. Grant's detailed attention in writing about the Mexican and Civil wars and comparatively little to no attention paid to his personal life and presidency reveals what he probably felt, during his final months, were the foundations of his life and legacy. In fact, his history in the Mexican War only gains in prominence because so many of the men he knew and fought with from that day were met upon the battlefields of the Civil War, and it is here that the history of his experience in the West and in Mexico becomes an advantage; because he knew they were mortal men personally, when confronting them as the enemy, his trepidations and anxiety before each battle were never as great as in those Union soldiers whose only reference were the praises sung in the Northern newspapers of the enemy's commanders' genius.
On the flip side of Grant's story, is Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General of the Civil War. The book Lee: The Last Years, is an excellent segway from Grant's memoirs as Grant essentially ends his account at the Confederate surrender received from Lee at Appomattox while the book on Lee starts at this point, recounting the final years until his death five years later (1870). This is a very well-researched book and inspiring story of Lee's dedication to leading the South's recovery from the war by example, both as a contributing citizen and college president of Washington College (later to be become Washington and Lee University). There are some very interesting factual nuggets in this book that I wasn't aware of, such as Arlington Cemetary originally having been the home of Lee and his family, the property handed down to his wife as a descendant of Martha Washington. Based on this book, I am looking forward to finding some additional reading material on the Reconstruction Period--any recommendations are appreciated.
Rounding out these readings is the handbook-like Churchill on Leadership. Having not yet read any of Churchill's writings or biography in detail, this is an excellent introduction to the man's life and career, viewed through the prism of leadership and its characteristics. Churchill was a true renaissance man and his life is full of examples of adaptive leadership in the face of adversity. Many of the leadership points to remember from his life that are summarised at the end of each chapter may seem obvious by themselves, but they really come to life when reading how they were applied in specific situations. This is the perfect type of book to have on an office shelf to which a manager can quickly refer to when facing a particular challenge, a new role transition, or sudden increase in responsibilities.
As we reflect on 2010 and look forward to 2011, I leave the reader with the following 1938 Churchill quote from the Chapter on 'Confronting Failure and Learning from Mistakes':
"We must learn from misfortune the means of future strength."
May we learn from any misfortune in 2010 so that 2011 is filled with strength.