Good morning. It's Friday, June 5, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation intended to be instructive or inspirational. Today's was originally going to be from James Baldwin, but a retired American chief executive with approximately 119 million more Twitter followers than I have beat me to the punch. So I'll offer a few quotes on leadership instead. Three, to be precise. One is a famous note written by a U.S. Army general on the eve of a great battle. The second is from a 19th century wartime president -- a note to one of his generals. The third comes from the CEO of a wildly successful open-source software company.
All three involve the idea of accountability, a key component of leadership.
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Was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower nervous on the eve of D-Day? The easy answer to that question is yes, of course he was -- who wouldn't have been? Battling terrible weather and the inherent uncertainty of an invasion designed as a surprise, he was dispatching the largest armada in history across the English Channel carrying some 156,000 Allied troops. But historians have a concrete clue, in the form of an otherwise meaningless typographical error, that Gen. Eisenhower was nervous. Seventy-six years ago today, in a scribbled note that scholars call the "In Case of Failure Message," Ike wrote the following:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."
Obviously, Eisenhower never had to deliver those words, but the tip-off that he was under great strain came in a minor mistake in the note. Eisenhower dated it "July 5, 1944" instead of "June 5, 1944." Although the typo is an interesting footnote, the note itself lives on in our national memory because of what it tells us about Eisenhower's character. Accepting the mantle of command, in his mind, meant a willingness to take responsibility for failure as well as success.
In June of 2020, enforced quarantine (and no baseball) has meant more television-watching this spring than is customary for most of us. I suspect that "Grant," a three-part History Channel documentary directed by Malcolm Venville, is getting more viewers than it would in a normal year. It's worthy of the attention. And in its account of Ulysses S. Grant's brilliant Vicksburg campaign, the documentary draws attention to a letter sent by President Lincoln to Gen. Grant on July 31, 1863.
U.S. presidents have long feuded with their top military commanders. Journalists this week are exultant over the blistering criticism leveled at Donald Trump by James Mattis, who is not only a retired four-star U.S. Marine, but the Trump administration's former Defense Department chief. The public takes sides in these spats -- that is also nothing new -- often on a partisan basis, or because of other factors including military progress on the battlefield or the president's popularity. This was true when Harry Truman cashiered Gen. Douglas MacArthur, just as was the case when Lincoln sacked George B. McClellan. The reasons differed. Put as simply as possible, MacArthur wanted to fight too much; McClellan, too little. In the latter's case, he ended up running as a Democrat against Lincoln in the 1864 election.
That challenge was unsuccessful, in large part because of the battlefield success of Grant and another fighting Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman. By 1864, Lincoln had learned to trust the strategic acumen of each of them, which brings me back to Lincoln's July 31, 1863, letter congratulating Grant on his victories. Although Lincoln and Grant had not yet met in person, they were forming a bond. Part of it was based on Lincoln's honesty and lack of ego. When Grant arrived in the vicinity of Vicksburg, he realized that he had to march his army eastward to engage and cut off a second Confederate force before turning back to the main prize. This maneuver surprised the rebels -- it surprised Grant's commander-in-chief as well -- but it proved the right one, as Lincoln volunteered in his remarkable letter.
"I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment," the missive concluded, "that you were right, and I was wrong. Yours very truly, A. Lincoln."
If a contrast with our current president comes to mind, you are hardly alone. Then again, few presidents have ever been as gracious with subordinates -- or with adversaries, for that matter -- as "A. Lincoln."
"It required no effort on his part to admit another man's superiority," Joseph Gillespie, a friend and colleague from Lincoln's Illinois lawyering days, wrote in 1866. "[A]nd his admission that General Grant was right and he was wrong about operations in Vicksburg was not intended for effect as some suppose but was perfectly in character."
This quality goes beyond Lincoln's sui generis nature, and entails more than 19th century chivalry. It's good management, in any era, and always has been. In 2015, four years before he sold his company to IBM for $34 billion, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst explained how much his employees appreciated it when accepted blame after Red Hat's integration with a new company had gone more slowly and less smoothly than he had promised.
"Many Red Hatters told me how much they appreciated that I admitted my mistake," he wrote. "In short, being accessible, answering questions, admitting mistakes, and saying you're sorry aren't liabilities. They are exactly the tools you can use to build your credibility and authority to lead."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.