August 2013

Leaders Live Their Values Every Day

The Moral Courage of Ulysses S. Grant

by Ed Ruggero

In his memoir, Ulysses S. Grant tells of an incident that allowed him to distinguish physical and moral courage.

During the war with Mexico, Grant was assigned as the quartermaster of one regiment; it was his job to oversee all the supplies and equipment, to be prepared to bring up ammunition in the middle of a fight, to remove the wounded, all matter of duties critical to victory. Grant's regiment was in reserve as another unit joined the battle. When the noise reached him, Grant wrote,

My curiosity got the better of my judgment, and I mounted a horse and rode to the front to see what was going on. I had been there but a short time when an order to charge was given, and lacking the moral courage to return to camp—where I had been ordered to stay—I charged with the regiment.

Grant found himself with men who had been ordered to attack the enemy position. The right thing for him to do would have been to turn around and ride to the rear, to his own place of duty, the place he had been ordered to stay. But that would have meant turning his horse toward safety while other men were moving to attack. The officers and soldiers of that advancing unit would have looked on his actions as an act of cowardice, or at best, they might have figured he was taking advantage of his assigned duty to avoid the gunfire. No matter their understanding of his duty, men about to join the fight are liable to see anyone moving in the opposite direction as a shirker. This proved too powerful for the young officer—Grant was three years out of West Point, twenty-four years old—to resist.

Grant failed in his duty as quartermaster and went off on a dangerous adventure. The point is that soldiers don't get to choose where they want to be. They must do their duty. Just as the men in the regiment ordered to advance were compelled to move forward, some to their death, Grant's duty to return to his own regiment should have been just as compelling.

It isn't hard for us to imagine a scenario where doing the right thing—following the dictates of one's moral judgment, might expose us to ridicule. For a soldier, appearing a coward in front of other soldiers may be the worst fate imaginable. A World War Two veteran I interviewed once told me, "I'd take a bullet before I'd be thought a coward by my buddies."

Grant, arguably one of the finest soldiers the country ever produced, admitted that he was unable to do the right thing—he shirked what he knew (or acknowledged later) was his duty because he was afraid—it makes no difference that the thing he was afraid of was not death or maiming, but of being seen a coward.

Grant's problem wasn't that he didn't know the right thing; it was that he couldn't make himself do the right thing.

How can an organization's culture help people do what's right? First comes knowledge. The organization must have clearly articulated values that everyone is aware of and can support. Many leaders resist the idea that it is their duty to clarify values for the group. But every organization has a culture; without guidance and nurturing, it may default to a dysfunctional one. A leader who avoids establishing the right culture is making a choice to let others do it, or to let the organization drift toward the lowest common denominator.

What about doing the right thing? There is no easy answer, of course. But it is easier for people to make the right, though difficult decision if they have seen others around them do it. For the leader, this means modeling the values in her behavior, every day.

Few of us will face a decision as stark or as dramatic as Grant's. But all of us make small decisions every day in which we choose to live by our expressed values, or we choose to do the wrong thing. And just as Grant was visible to the soldiers around him because he was on horseback and they were on foot, each leader is just that visible to other team members. People notice and talk about what the leader does. That's a good thing to keep in mind the next time you're tempted to ride off someplace when you're supposed to be elsewhere.