Lean Leadership Lessons from William T. Sherman

By Jon Miller

lean leadership lessons from general sherman

I just finished reading a book about the Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, titled Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert O’Connell. I recommend it heartily for fans of military history or history or the lives of complex individuals placed within pivotal moments in history.

Sherman was despised by Southerners for the merciless “scorched earth” campaign as he waged total war upon the confederate States of Georgia, North and South Carolina in his ultimately successful effort to break the back of the rebellion. He was widely loved by his troops as “Uncle Billy”. Trained as an officer at West Point, he did not immediately love the troops at his command. In fact, Sherman had contempt for his corps of volunteers at first.

Sherman’s army was largely made of volunteers and not professional solders like himself. Yet he drilled, trained and led them to become a formidable fighting force. As he saw that they could indeed fight, they won his respect and his opinion changed, writing to his wife Ellen in 1862, “our army is now composed of all the best troops & men in the West”.

The book revealed several parallels in Sherman’s leadership style to what today we might call Lean leadership. Notably, in ensuring that his troops remained adaptable, that he developed his men through challenge, and by remaining available nearby as their coach. From the book,

“…the variety of missions they would undertake precluded turning them into any one thing. So he became a guiding hand, presenting them with a series of challenges and basically letting them figure out how to meet them. Yet he never lost contact; he was always among them, completely approachable.”

Adaptability. Survival in business requires continuous improvement of service, quality, and price. An army’s survival across battles in a war requires not only learning how to fight, but how to survive in different and often difficult conditions. As a West Point graduate, it would have been easy for Sherman to fall back on his own training and attempt to drill his men into a rigid, regular army. Yet his own experiences which ranged widely from founding a military academy in Louisiana to managing a bank in San Francisco to managing a streetcar company in St. Louis, with mixed success, taught him the value of picking up, learning lessons and moving on.

Challenge. Increasingly people recognize that a core tenet of the Toyota Production System and Lean, and the key to sustained success of companies that adhere to these approaches, is in developing their people in a very specific way. Toyota has even named “challenge” as part of the Toyota Way, its corporate DNA. This involves leaders and managers acting as a guide or coach to support the problem solving activities of their subordinates, rather than giving commands and answers. Even today, this is not a common enough practice. We can say that Sherman was far ahead of his time, practicing this in 1862.

Being approachable. Uncle Billy, as his troops knew him, did not manage by fear. As with many workplaces today, there was no doubt plenty of fear on the battlefield already. Sherman did not need fear to motivate his troops. Instead, he made himself approachable and visible on the gemba. He was literally on the front lines, available to listen to the rank and file solders, taking their ideas and initiatives into account when appropriate. In Sherman’s own words, “Every soldier of my command comes into my presence as easy as the highest officer…. They see me daily, nightly, hourly.” Sherman appears to have mastered the balance of command and delegation that created highly motivated, highly capable troops.

In a speech he gave to 10,000 people in Ohio in 1880, Sherman may have coined the phrase “war is hell” when he said, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” Military leaders have the unenviable responsibility for guiding many men and women to their deaths, and many through hell, but the best among them do this with lean leadership practices of giving their troops respect, autonomy and the chance to grow.