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IRobert E. Lee was probably the most inspirational leader in the Civil War; perhaps in American history. Lee inspired his men to do more with less. His men loved him and would have followed him anywhere.

Surprisingly Lee was not Jefferson Davis’ first choice to lead what would become the Army of Northern Virginia—however, he was Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Federal Army of the Potomac. (What a fascinating ‘what-if’ that would be to explore!) Lee would not lead an army against his home state of Virginia, so he joined the Confederate army. When Davis’ first choice, Joseph Johnston became wounded, Lee was promoted and the rest is history.

I wrote above what would become the Army of Northern Virginia because when Lee took over his command was not known as the Army of Northern Virginia and the war was being fought at the gates of Richmond. Lee named the army thus because he wanted to inspire his men to believe that northern Virginia would be where they would be—they were taking the fight to the enemy.

Federal generals of the Army of the Potomac were cautious, slow to act, unimaginative and lackluster. Lee was decisive, bold in action, imaginative in his plans and inspirational. It can safely be said that if he wasn’t inspirational, the rest of his attributes listed here would not have made him a success.

Lee consistently had fewer men than the opposing army. Yet, he consistently outsmarted, out-maneuvered and out-fought every general that Abraham Lincoln sent his way. Even at the end, with no food, no supplies, with ammunition running low, Lee’s men wanted to fight on. They did not want to surrender. But Lee, leader that he was, knew the time had come.

Lee was inspirational. I believe, had the South won that he would have been the second president1 of the Confederate States of America.

Leadership Lessons

  1. Success often has little to do with supplies, including number of troops (or employees).
  2. Successful leaders are not bosses—bosses push from behind; leaders inspire from the front.
  3. Names matter and can inspire the troops.
  4. Step outside the box and be imaginative, bold and decisive.

1 The Confederate constitution limited the president’s term to 6 years, with no re-election possible. Something they got right?