12 leadership lessons in the words of Robert E. Lee

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee didn’t want to fight the Civil War. He thought the dissolution of the Union would bring about the end of the American experiment.

Yet he led the Confederate Army through all four years of the American Civil War.

For many, Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army and fight for his home state of Virginia demonstrated a flaw in his character.

Some see him trading the principles of American freedom to fight to uphold the institution of slavery. But where Lee saw secession as an act of democracy, the North saw it differently, and Lee chose to fight for that reason alone.

“If Virginia stands by the old Union,” said Lee, quoted in Smithsonian Magazine, “so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”

No matter how one may feel about Lee’s service or legacy, he was a towering figure, a hero of the Mexican war, and one of the best leaders to come from West Point.

There are many books that provide key lessons in leadership from his life that we can apply every day.

1. The importance of ambition.

“It is for you to decide your destiny, freely and without constraint.”

2. Know what you’re up against.

“It behooves us to be on the alert, or we will be deceived. You know that is part of Grant’s tactics.”

3. Your confidence in yourself and the confidence others have in you are both key to success.

“No matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops, disaster must sooner or later ensue.”

An eyewitness description of Robert E. Lee called him “As near perfection as a man can be."

An eyewitness description of Robert E. Lee called him “As near perfection as a man can be.”

4. Courage is remembered.

“I recollect the distance [Lee traveled] amid darkness and storm… traversed entirely unaccompanied. Scarcely a step could have been taken without danger of death; but that to him, a true soldier, was the willing risk of duty in a good cause.”

– Gen. Winfield Scott, remarking on Lee’s action in the Mexican War

5. Always finish what is expected of you.

“Duty… is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, you cannot do more – you should never wish to do less.”

6. Plan for the long term.

“The life of humanity is so long, that of the individual is so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”

Colonel Robert E. Lee

Colonel Robert E. Lee

7. Expect to fail at times.

“We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”

8. Integrity above all else.

“I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.”

9. Hire the right people, then inspire them to greatness.

Lee in 1869, the year before his death.

Lee in 1869, the year before his death.

“You must inspire and lead your brave division that it may accomplish the work of a corps… our army would be invincible if it could be properly organized and officered. They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.”

10. Be magnanimous in competition. Anything less breeds contempt.

“Madame, don’t bring your sons up to detest the United States. Recollect that we form one country, now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.”

– Lee in a letter to a Confederate widow after the war

11. Loyalty begets loyalty.

“Lee was a phenomenon… the only man I would follow blindfolded.”

– Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

12. Reward discipline in subordinates.

“In recommending officers and men for promotion you will always, where other qualifications are equal, give preference to those who show the highest appreciation of the importance of discipline and evince the greatest attention to its requirements.”

Robert E. Lee's death mask (Museum of the Confederacy)

Robert E. Lee’s death mask (Museum of the Confederacy)

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