Book Recommendation: Robert E. Lee on Leadership

Most recently I read through Robert E. Lee on Leadership, by H.W. Crocker III. Overall, I found it to be quite excellent: a fascinating and very useful insight into one of the preeminent figures of American history.

Mr. Crocker’s focus is less to tell a complete biography of Lee (though we get a decent overview of his life) than it is to draw useful leadership lessons from his example, said lessons he helpfully lists in bullet-point form at the end of each chapter. The lessons he derives are generally excellent, illustrated by concrete examples from Lee’s life and adapted to a modern, non-military context without losing their essential form. I liked these so much that I copied them down for personal use.

  • Accept life as it is and make the best of it.
  • To lead others, one must first master oneself
  • A good leader is first a good subordinate. Leadership must be earned
  • People matter, individuals matter; no system, however well oiled, and no leader, however omnicompetent, can afford to ignore the importance of personnel and having the right people in the right posts.
  • A leader has as few rules encumbering his administration as possible – and sticks to them, always bearing individual circumstances in mind.

And there are a lot more. As I say, every chapter ends with these.

For my own part, what was most interesting was simply that Lee was an aristocrat and his whole approach to life was an aristocratic one; personal, driven by a keen awareness of men, of individuality, and of individual vice and virtue. Indeed, by the end of the war he was pretty much the de-facto monarch of the Confederacy; the men fought specifically for him, not so much for the new Confederate constitution and certainly not for Jefferson Davis (though I don’t want you running away with the idea that I’m criticizing Davis: that’s a whole other story). And they fought for him because, though he maintained an aloof and authoritative stance, he showed them by his example that he cared deeply for them and their cause.

At one point the author quotes from one of Lee’s soldiers:

“We were often hungry, but we knew he tried to find us food. We were nearly naked, but we knew he was doing his best to get clothing for us. We were weary oftentimes from the marches he set before us, but were satisfied that he did not call on us to make good his delinquencies. He came daily among us – always the ideal figure of a soldier – and though he never sought popularity by ostentation, when he spoke to us it was with as much affection as of dignity.”

There’s a very telling bit where the author presents excerpts from George B. McClellan’s dispatches from the Seven Days’ Battles. McClellan is continually declaiming any responsibility for his reversals, blaming the government for not giving him enough men (he outnumber the Confederates by a considerable margin), etc.

“I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this.”

He comes across like a whiny schoolboy trying to get out of trouble (but then, of course, no one likes McClellan). Lee, by contrast accepts full responsibility for everything that happens under his command. After Gettysburg, he wrote to Davis accepting full responsibility for the loss and offering to resign:

“No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public. I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valour.”

The book also touches on Lee’s brief post-war career as President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), which frankly I would like to read a full book on.

My main criticism is just that I found the book came across as too hagiographical. Lee as presented can do no wrong, and every one of his decisions are defended, the blame for his defeats shifted to his lieutenants (Longstreet in particular plays the scapegoat a lot). Even Pickett’s Charge is represented as a good plan ruined by shoddy execution.

Of course, I can’t say for sure that Mr. Crocker is wrong in any of this; the American Civil War has been written about, examined, and studied so much that practically every interpretation of every event and decision that took place during the war has been both condemned and defended with supporting evidence, and I’m no expert in the field. All I will say is that it came across as unconvincing simply because it was too uniform. Lee was undoubtedly a brilliant commander and a great man, but he was only human and was bound to make mistakes or poor calls from time to time, and had the author acknowledged this then I think his portrait would have come across better.

On the other hand, it’s frankly refreshing to read an unashamedly pro-Confederate book in this day and age (though the book came out in 1999, so it’s not quite contemporary). For what little it’s worth, my own views on the war are a little complicated and would probably require an entire post of their own, but the short version is that I can sympathize with both sides.

Anyway, that one shortcoming aside I would definitely recommend the book, particularly to anyone in a leadership position. Whatever your views on the war, there is no denying that Lee was a great leader and a great man; the fact that he brought that tattered, under-equipped army to the brink of victory and held them together even after defeat was inevitable is undeniable proof of that. He’s certainly a man worthy of study and emulation, and Mr. Crocker’s book is an excellent place to start.

Note: The above is Amazon affiliate link. A purchase made through this link nets me a small commission at no extra charge to you.

2 thoughts on “Book Recommendation: Robert E. Lee on Leadership

  1. Lee was ahead of his time in one respect. The Confederate army did not award medals. Medals were still a new innovation at the time, which they did not adopt. But, Lee would give a pincushion to soldiers who were mentioned in a dispatch. In today’s army, we mention the value of making the soldiers’ families feel appreciated. We do not always do that well, but we try. In Lee’s time, no leader made a conscious effort to appeal to the family, except Lee. Lee knew the pincushion would be used by the soldier’s wife. In a time when virtually all women sewed, pincushions were a valuable commodity.

    Liked by 1 person

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