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Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Part I

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | July 14, 2012

“It is well that war is so terrible.  We should grow too fond of it.”
Robert E. Lee

On a recent drive down the Shenandoah Valley we stopped for the night in the small community of New Market, Virginia.  We could not help but notice all of the evidence that we were in an historic Civil War community.  In fact, located just outside of town was the famous New Market Battlefield. 

After breakfast and before we resumed our travels on I-81 south we drove to the historic site.  And, though we did not have time for the three hour museum tour, we did visit the bookstore.  There I found H. W. Crocker III’s book titled Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision (1999; 2000).

Before I share some of Crocker’s insights in this first of a two part series, here is a brief overview of Lee’s life.  He was born in Stratford, Virginia on January 19, 1807 as the youngest son of major-general Henry Lee, called “Light Horse Harry.”  He entered West Point in 1825 and graduated four years later second in his class.  After serving in the U.S. Engineer Corps, he took part in the Mexican war, repeatedly winning distinction for conduct and bravery. 

After the war and further engineer work, he was appointed superintendent of West Point in 1852 where he served for three years.  He continued to serve in the U.S. Army and in in 1861 was made a colonel by the Federal Government of the U.S. In that role he was offered the command of the field army about to invade the South because of the secession of Virginia. 

With huge personal sacrifice and commitment, he resigned his commission and made his way to Richmond and was at once made the leader of the Virginian forces.  A few weeks later he became a brigadier-general (then highest rank) in the Confederate service where he served until the end of the war in 1865.

By his achievements, Lee won high place among the great generals of history.  Though hampered by lack of materials and by political necessities, his strategy was daring always, and he never hesitated to take the gravest risks. His personal influence over the men whom he led was extraordinary. 

Any student of the Civil War cannot help but notice how Lee’s influence dominated the course of the struggle which was never more conspicuously shown than in the last hopeless stages of the contest.  In spite of his military losses, Lee is acknowledged by friends and foes for the purity of his motives, the virtues of his private life, his earnest Christianity and the unwavering loyalty with which he accepted the ruin of his party.

Crocker’s book looks at Lee’s life from a topical perspective which follows Lee through the various stages of his development and leadership.  Beginning with a summary of Lee as a person, he goes on to describe his Apprenticeship in Mexico, Lee as a Businessman and Strategist, as well as particular descriptions of Lee during the war.  I found his Chapter on “Lee Versus Grant” particularly insightful.

Perhaps Lee’s most noble qualities became evident after Gettysburg when the tide of the war turned and his challenges grew beyond any hope of a win.  No matter how one feels about his cause, his leadership against hopeless odds was absolutely remarkable. 

During his final years he was the President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) located in Lexington, Virginia.  There he and his horse, Traveller, are buried.

In Lee’s words, “Live in the world you inhabit.  Look upon things as they are.  Take them as you find them.  Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage.  The great duty of life is the promotion of the happiness and welfare of our fellow man.  I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot control himself.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu