Who comes to mind when you think of the greatest American leaders? George Washington? Abe Lincoln? Susan B. Anthony? Martin Luther King, Jr?
It’s been said that from the end of the Civil War through the remainder of the Nineteenth Century, Ulysses S. Grant was widely regarded throughout the world as America’s greatest leader, even more so than Lincoln.
I would encourage you to read Grant’s personal memoirs or the 2017 biography, simply titled Grant, by Ron Chernow. You’ll see some things in Grant that you don’t like, but you’ll also see a man of incredible tenacity, vision, humility, and insight to the human condition. He overcame extraordinary challenges on the battlefield and displayed a rare graciousness in victory that proved critical in the effort to reunify our broken country.
Grant had two glaring flaws. He had a major drinking problem and he tended to blindly trust some pretty shifty characters. The drinking brought significant setbacks to his career and reputation, and Grant’s association with corrupt people marred his presidency and left him financially ruined at the end of his life.
John Rawlins was an officer on Grant’s staff during the war and became an advisor to Grant in the early part of his presidency. He died of tuberculosis during Grant’s first term.
Rawlins knew Grant’s flaws and made it his mission to protect Grant from himself. He had the courage to confront the drinking, and the emotional intelligence to see manipulative scoundrels for who they were. Grant seems to have appreciated and counted on Rawlins to keep him on the straight and narrow and away from negative influences. Grant performed at his best when he had Rawlins by his side.
You may have never heard of John Rawlins before today, but through his impact on Grant, Rawlins altered the course of history.
I don’t know your vulnerabilities or your blind spots as a leader. But I encourage you to find a loyal loving critic or two—someone like John Rawlins– and invite them to speak truth to you, even when it’s hard to hear. Granted, it may not be necessary, but what have you got to lose?