Marching Into the Unknown
Some of the most fascinating reading about leaders does not come from when they have reached the summits of their fame and ability. Instead, it is the times when they are still stumbling up the hill, and learning lessons along the way that reveal the greatest insights. One great example of this comes from The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, the general who ultimately led the Union Army to victory in the American Civil War.
Grant was a Colonel in 1861 and had recently been assigned his first command, the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. With about a thousand men under his direction, he was ordered to march 25 miles south to the small town of Florida, Missouri, and attack the forces of Colonel Thomas Harris, who was encamped there. It was to be Grant’s first battle as a commander.
Along the route of march, he found the countryside eerily quiet; houses and small settlements were abandoned. Two horsemen they encountered, galloped away as quickly as they could the moment they saw Grant coming. Closing in on the enemy encampment, the tensions were starting to get the better of him. He wrote:
“As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.”
A Welcome Surprise
Finally cresting the brow of the hill, Grant saw something he did not expect:
“…the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”
It turned out that Harris had gotten wind of Grant’s approach and had fled rather than face him in battle. By the time Grant arrived, Harris was 40 miles farther to the south.
“I Kept Right On” – The Takeaway
If we are doing leadership right, we will frequently find ourselves in places of discomfort, and wishing we were “back in Illinois.” As we approach daunting tasks, we tend to focus on how we are feeling, the impact of events on us. The lesson from Grant is to remember that we aren’t the only player on the field.
Whether it’s the other people in the room during our presentation, the feelings of our teammate during a one-on-one session, or the customer we hope to build a lasting relationship with, there is always another point of view to consider. One trait of successful leaders is the ability to step outside themselves and imagine circumstances from other people’s perspective – how they view the situation may be very different from how we do.
Throughout his time in uniform, Grant’s ability to imagine circumstances from the standpoint of his opponent helped him stay one step ahead, and ultimately succeed in the war to end slavery.
When we find ourselves traveling through eerie, uncomfortable places into an unknown future, and feel our heart creeping up into our throat, it can help to remember that we may not be the only ones feeling that way.
Take a deep breath, think about how others may see things, adjust accordingly, and “keep right on.“
Photo Credit: Fowx, Edgar Guy  – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37902213