Ulysses S. Grant and COVID Insufficiency
If you love history, “grant” yourself the indulgence of reading Ron Chernow’s biography Grant, “a magisterial, but eminently readable, 959-page account of the life of Ulysses S. Grant.” Perhaps Grant has suffered the most unfair historical judgment of any American hero, criticized as a drunkard who presided over a corrupt presidential administration. Reading Chernow’s meticulously researched and well-documented biography, a radically different and heroic portrait emerges.
While Grant did suffer from alcoholism at different points in his life—a disease Americans have come to understand much better now—the dominant story recounts his victory over the disease and his brilliant performances as one of the greatest warrior-generals in history. While he did fail in business during his mid-life civilian period, that failure stemmed from his overly generous nature, not from any lack of hard work. Having little innate business sense and an overly-trusting nature hardly constitutes a moral failure. As for corruption in his administration, history records the four members of his cabinet who brought scandal and disgrace upon themselves, but more importantly documents Grant’s efforts to clean up the rampant corruption in American government during the post-war climate, creating America’s first Civil Service Commission and fighting against the tide to establish honest government.
The untold story—or at least the one unheard by many—would detail Grant’s pioneering anti-racist work. Grant’s work in championing the full inclusion of African-Americans and Jews, along with his effort to annex Santo Domingo and make it a state—thus working to abolish slavery in the Caribbean—inspires admiration and respect. His family values and success as a parent also speak to his strong personal character and leadership merit. As for business success, he spent the final months of his life writing perhaps the finest presidential memoir ever written, thus securing the financial fortune of his family for multiple generations.
In fact, whatever Grant’s failures as a businessman and his alcoholic lapses as a frontier fort officer distanced from his family for two years, the record proves that he succeeded as a leader when it really counted—on the battlefield, in his home, in the White House, and in his ultimate post-presidential financial performance.
Grant’s example offers substantial grist for leadership theory to mill. While early theories of leadership suggested that leaders arise because of certain personality traits, today’s contingency theories recognize that different situations require different leadership abilities and styles. In the end, Grant’s failures in some situations in no way diminish his stellar leadership in others. No one is a person “for all seasons.”
I have written elsewhere of the difficulty college presidents or pastors face in long-term leadership of their institutions. The constantly changing circumstances of institutions require different approaches. Unless a leader can grow with the institution, constantly staying a little bit ahead of the times, long tenures can lead to ultimate failure. No shame should accrue to leaders who find that, while they used to provide exactly the right kind of leadership for their situation, they have come to the point where another leader should take the reins. The only legitimate shame comes when they fail to recognize that moment.
One experience shared by leaders across the world at this moment might be called “COVID insufficiency.” The pandemic came unexpected upon leaders who pride themselves on foreseeing and preparing for future problems. It robbed most leaders of the "fun” parts of their job. Many found themselves mired in depression or other stages of the grieving process. Almost all have questioned at one time or another whether they should continue—whether their institution deserves a new leader with a fresh vision. Past successes do not necessarily serve as an indicator of future effectiveness. But COVID insufficiency does not imply any deficit in leadership skill; it only certifies the humanity of leaders.
Leaders facing COVID insufficiency must do the hard work of providing a firm hand through trying times. Some businesses and institutions will fail because of the ravages of the pandemic. In many cases, no leader could have avoided that failure. In organizations that survive the pandemic, leaders will have to take inventory and decide whether they still have the fire in the belly to lead a new vision when the much-imagined “new normal” emerges. In fact, they will have to decide whether they can create the new normal in vision and realize it in concrete terms. It is the right question for leaders to ask at this time: “Am I the right leader to take this organization into the new world?” As you ask that question, you have my prayers for true guidance (and by the way, I’m signing on to lead the new normal at Northwest!)
In Spanish we have a great verb—claudicar—which essentially means “to give in.” The verb suggests that when people “give in,” they defeat themselves due to a lack of nerve or stamina or character. My advice to leaders is that, no matter what they decide about their own suitability as a leader for this time, they should never claudicar.
If you leave your current post, do it with conviction that another organization needs you. Don’t let COVID insufficiency—a very contingent situation—become your self-definition.