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Ulysses S. Grant picked his battles

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

In an age when pomp was all the rage, Ulysses S. Grant kept his persona strictly low-key.

In 1864, at the height of his military career, the Union general went to visit the president of the United States in Washington. Checking in at Willard’s Hotel with his son, Grant was given a small room in the attic. Only later did the desk clerk realize his error and reassign them to a suite.

This absence of grandstanding was nothing new. As a child, Grant had been quiet and studious. Bullied from a young age, he was taken advantage of, mocked for his name and nicknamed “Useless” Grant.

He felt more comfortable around horses than people, becoming a fabulous rider. He couldn’t stand the sight or smell of blood and wanted nothing to do with his father’s successful tanning business. All of this disappointed the old man.

Even in his youth, the younger Grant picked his battles. Arriving at West Point to study, he decided against arguing with the adjutant about his own name (actually Hiram Ulysses) and accepted the name given to him in a mix-up, realizing it would serve him better than the initials H.U.G.

But perhaps nothing shaped Grant more than the time he served under Gen. Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” in Mexico. Grant’s description of Taylor became the basis for his own leadership:

“General Taylor,” he wrote, “was not an officer to trouble [Washington] much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him. … If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade … but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.”

— Adapted from Lee & Grant, Charles R. Bowery Jr., Amacom.

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