A mythology grew around Lee and the cause he served. For many, Lee’s qualities and accomplishments, already impressive, gained godlike proportions. This was the Lee I first came to know: a leader whose flaws and failures were sanded off, the very human figure recast as a two-dimensional hero whose shadow had eclipsed the man from whom it came.
But as time passed, the myth was reexamined. The darker side of Lee’s legacy, and the picture in my office, now communicated ideas about race and equality with which I sought no association. Down it came.
Read: Lee’s reputation can’t be redeemed
It was not a simple decision. For almost 150 years, Lee had been a subject of study, and of admiration, not only for his skill, but also as a symbol of stoic commitment to duty. And while I could appreciate the visceral association with slavery and injustice that images of the Confederacy’s most famous commander evoke, for a lifetime, that’s not the association I’d drawn. I’d read and largely believed Winston Churchill’s statements that “Lee was one of the noblest Americans who ever lived and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.”
At age 63, the same age at which Lee died, I concluded I was wrong—to some extent wrong about Lee as a leader, but certainly about the message that Lee as a symbol conveyed. And although I was slow to appreciate it, a significant part of American society, many still impacted by the legacy of slavery, had felt it all along.
Most accounts of Lee as a man, and a leader—his physical presence, demeanor, valor, and apparent serenity—reflect almost quintessentially desirable leadership traits. But staring into a bright light makes it hard to see clearly. More than most, Lee is portrayed either in a glare of adulation or, more recently, under a dark cloud of disdain.
At West Point, Lee and the other Southern heroes became icons whom other cadets and I instinctively sought to emulate. In a painful contradiction, they also betrayed the oath we shared, took up arms against their nation, and fought to kill former comrades—all in the defense of a cause committed to the morally indefensible maintenance of slavery.
In terms of Lee’s character, in some ways he was a good man, and in other ways a bad one. But leadership itself is neither good nor evil. Malevolent leaders emerge as often as those we judge to be good. Leadership is better judged as either effective or not. Was Lee effective? In large ways yes, and in many ways no. It is difficult to separate Lee the leader from the mythology that has grown around him. If we look more closely, we’ll find that reality pushes back on the myth.
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Institutions have tremendous influence on the leaders that emerge within them. In the mid-19th century, Lee made himself into one of the most respected members of the United States Army. One way to understand the first 54 years of Lee’s life, which included a 32-year career in the United States Army, is to understand why, in 1861, he was offered high-ranking command on opposing sides in a civil war.