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Robert E. Lee and Self-Denial

By Orrin Woodward

Robert E. Lee — the Virginian, American and Civil War general — was a great leader because he had great character. General Lee taught that you are not worthy to lead until you take your focus off yourself and focus on serving your team.

Here are some thoughts out of H. W. Crocker’s phenomenal book called Robert E. Lee on Leadership :

“Lee recognized that most men — especially soldiers — have every reason to regard selfishness as a vice, and to regard an officer who thinks first of himself and then of his men, who is casual about their lives and well-being but selfishly protective of his own, as unworthy of his commission.

“Vice, however tempting to the individual, rarely invites respect in practice. Leaders who lack the respect of their subordinates must rely on force, something Lee regarded with acute distaste and a confession of failure, necessary only under the most extreme circumstances.

“For the modern business leader it might be appropriate to point out that leaders who rely on force are ultimately ineffective businessmen — especially in a competitive marketplace operating with a free exchange of labor and capital.”

Did you catch that? First, if a leader is more concerned about protecting his income or his position and not the welfare of the people under their leadership, then they are not worthy of the title leader.

People followed General Lee because of who he was, not his title. General’s Lee’s army followed him even when they hadn’t been paid. They followed even when they knew their cause was lost. Why? People knew they were following a leader who had given his all to the cause.

Second, personal character faults — lying, stealing, adultery, etc. — destroy your ability to lead. No one follows a person willingly they do not trust.

The poorest form of “leadership?” is positional. This is only used when the “leader?” is not capable of building a relationship based on trust. With no trust the relationship defaults to threats and use of force. You will do this because I am the boss! You will do this or I will take your Christmas bonus! You will do this or I will see you in court! There is a better way for leaders to solve issues.

I am a firm believer that two reasonable parties can agree to disagree. By displaying mutual respect they can still treat each other with God-given dignity. General Lee disagreed with his subordinates at times, but he always treated them with dignity and respect. This allowed General Lee to find win-win solutions to every issue that developed.

Third, free enterprise allows the free flow of people, capital, and ideas. If someone has a better idea and cannot apply them at their current employer or business, our free enterprise system allows them to go elsewhere to test the ideas. This is what makes America great.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter used the term “Creative Destruction.” Mr. Schumpeter explained the term to mean the constant flux of people, capital and ideas to recreate the marketplace. What makes the free enterprise system so much better than state controlled system?

It’s the reward for entrepreneurs to make the changes and benefit if they are right. In the process of creating the new that they, by definition, destroy the old. That is free enterprise!

This is why leadership of the quality of General Lee is so important. Ultimately, people will follow leaders over money, perks, and positions and because of leadership the money will follow them. If people, capital and ideas are free to come and go, then the only competitive advantage is the ability of leaders to lead and teams to learn.

All over America today people are leaving jobs and businesses because the management team is not leading the people with vision and competence. The industrial age is over and the information age is upon us. Lead, follow or get out of the way!

I love free enterprise and I love the chance to test new ideas in the marketplace. I encourage you to read up on free enterprise. Our country is what it is today because it allows entrepreneurs to enter the marketplace and compete with their ideas, capital, and team of leaders!

Robert E. Lee won some battles and lost some battles, but he was always a man of character and won in the game of life. General Lee won and lost his battles with honor. Free enterprise demands that type of honor. True leadership is the strength of character to compete honorably and give everyone an equal opportunity.

Tell me your thoughts. What has free enterprise and personal growth meant in your life?


Orrin Woodward is the co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company, and the New York Times best-selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution.

Named by the International Association of Business as a Top 10 Leadership Guru, he is dedicated to building leaders and entrepreneurs and promoting freedom and prosperity.

Orrin blogs regularly at Orrin Woodward. He lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida with his wife and four children.

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