Lee knew Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, craved information. Davis wanted intelligence on the state of his operations, on the condition of his army and on Lee’s views about the Southern strategy.
In 1862, Lee sent Davis a dispatch to demonstrate his style.
“I will keep you informed of everything of importance that transpires,” he wrote. “When you do not hear from me, you may feel sure that I do not think it necessary to trouble you. I shall feel obliged to you for any directions you may think proper to give.”
That tack reassured the Confederate leader and gave Lee a free hand.
On the flip side of the coin, several Union generals actively flouted their leader’s wishes, and paid the price, both at the time and in history’s estimation.
The most stunning example: Gen. George McClellan, a West Point engineer who graduated among the top members of his class, was also a staunch Democrat. He disagreed with President Lincoln politically and disliked him personally. McClellan’s constant griping drove Lincoln nuts and did little to advance the general’s agenda. Instead, he is remembered today for idling his army and eventually getting sacked.
Lesson: Whatever your leadership position, learn what your chief wants and needs from you, and get it.
—Adapted from Lee & Grant: Profiles in Leadership from the Battlefields of Virginia, Charles R. Bowery Jr., AMACOM.