Presented with a big spending request in the heat of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant surprised an underling with the speed of his response. When asked how certain he was of his decision, Grant responded, “In war, anything is better than indecision. We must decide. Not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.” Grant, as most know, was one of the most effective generals in American history. He was, at least on the battlefield, a true renegade thinker.
Lest you think Grant was a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion. Grant’s decisiveness resulted from having a master plan. More to the point of this newsletter, he also often made battle decisions based on the character of the opposing generals rather than the numerical or geographic realities. As they say in poker, he played the man, not the cards. And he could “play the man” because he knew many of them from his early days in the Army or because he did his homework.
By now the history buffs among you have probably figured out that I’m in the middle of Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, and in truth, it’s riveting. At 5’8” with a modest build, stooped shoulders and no oratory skills whatsoever, the introverted Grant is as unlikely a military hero as you will ever encounter — unless you happened to see him in battle. There, you’d see the raw courage that earned him the devotion of hundreds of thousands of troops, the decisiveness that kept his rivals at bay and the horsemanship that defied gravity.
Let’s zoom in on Grant’s courage, since that’s a term that comes up a lot in conversations about successful marketers. To the dismay of his subordinates, Grant never missed an opportunity to see the battlefield for himself and, on numerous occasions, came under direct fire. In these harrowing situations, Grant exuded preternatural calm. He simply didn’t flinch when shots were fired — a characteristic he acquired long before he studied at West Point.
As a leader, Grant would have fit the Level 5 “Invisible Hand” profile Jim Collins ascribed to successful CEOs in his landmark book, “Good to Great.” Level 5 individuals are not the publicity-seeking blowhards who take credit for all the good stuff and put blame on others when things go awry. True to this profile, Grant earned the respect of his troops through actions rather than words, whether he was riding through the night in the rain, clearing roads of debris or sleeping on the ground.
And despite being a world-class general, Grant was pretty much a colossal failure when out of uniform. He was described as “naïve and guileless” when it came to character judgment and simply couldn’t imagine someone would lie to him or try to swindle him. He also didn’t possess the quick wit or showmanship that might have helped him avoid the political landmines that confronted him at every turn in business or as President of the United States. Grant was the proverbial fish out of water, unless that water was held by the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865.
So why the history lesson? To me, Grant’s story is both inspiring and instructive for senior marketers. Yes, he had the courage to take bold initiatives often without direct permission from his superiors. Yes, he led by example, never asking his troops to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And yes, he was agile when it came to decision-making. But in the last years of his life when he was nearly penniless from bad business deals, Grant’s misplaced trust in a few nefarious characters revealed a fatal weakness and thus the singular truth that few of us can be great at everything.
Marketing may not be war, but we sure use a lot of its language — strategy, campaigns, surveillance, base, lines of attack, targeting, groundwork, escalation — and of course, we say these words in our “war rooms”! Grant would actually be quite comfortable with our daily patter, if not our ongoing mission to cut through. So, as you plan your 2018 campaigns, remember Grant and how this unassuming man helped to save the Union through hard work, steady leadership, skills that matched the challenge and, no doubt, a bit of luck along the way.
Oh and by the way, thanks to all the courageous guests on “Renegade Thinkers Unite.” Our podcast just reached 100,000 downloads, a feat that is almost worthy of an 18-gun salute.