The Importance of Empathy to A Great Leader

[Author’s Note: in my Leadership Seminar at Agnes Scott College, we read E. L. Doctorow’s The March and discussed different characters’ leadership qualities. I chose to write about General Sherman to analyze why he is a good leader but not a great leader.]

What makes a great leader? A leader ought to have the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively, bear responsibility for people and society, reflect on the consequences of his decisions, empathize with the people his decisions affect, and remain open-minded. In E. L. Doctorow’s novel The March, General William T. Sherman does have some great qualities: he is a strategic thinker, he has a strong sense of responsibility for his army and soldiers, and he reflects on himself and his actions after winning each campaign. These qualities make him a good leader. However, they are not enough to make him a great leader because he too often puts victory at any cost above concern for the people, including the recently freed slaves, that his actions affect. To me, this is why Sherman is a good but not a great leader.

General Sherman is a strategic thinker concerned for his army and his soldiers. His efficient and decisive orders lead to the successful March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah and finally help his troops and the Union win the whole war. He is also a thoughtful leader, as shown by the ways in which he reflects on the outcome of his campaign and the war. In Part One, after marching through Atlanta and on to Savannah, Sherman reflects on the measures he has taken:

. . . the Ogeechee and the Sound cleared of mines, secesh coastal guns dismounted. Slocum’s corps deployed from the Savannah River to the seven-mile post on the canal, Howard’s to the sea, Kilpatrick’s cavalry by the King’s Bridge and the roads leading north and west. Shops open, streets cleared, fire companies intact. All public buildings, abandoned plantations, etc., the property of the Federal government. He’d missed nothing. Then what was wrong? (116)

He tries to learn from every battle so that he can reduce the deaths of his soldiers. After the march is accomplished, and Sherman gathers with his fellow generals for the signing of the surrender, he thinks about “why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war” (359). He further understands the adverse effects of the march, and considers his role as well as actions in this war. These deliberate thoughts make him thoughtful and a good leader.

General Sherman is concerned with his soldiers and is called “Uncle Billy” by them (80), but does he really care about them as individuals? When he considers the deaths of his men, he says, “as a general officer I consider the death of one of my soldiers, first and foremost, a numerical disadvantage, an entry in the liability column. That is all my description of it. It is a utilitarian idea of death—that I am reduced by one in my ability to fight a war” (89). Thus, he is not concerned about “people.” In fact, General Sherman’s sympathies for individuals, including individual soldiers, is limited; he pays more attention to victory in the war and his capacity to win the war, which shows his selfishness and indifference. A great leader will not just regard deaths as numbers, because he or she knows that lives are as significant as victory. A leader like General Sherman, who has great strategic talent but does not always care about individual lives risks losing the respect of others, especially those who follow him. Once they do not revere him, they might rebel his orders. As Doctorow writes, “respect, not affection, was what a commanding officer depended on—it was a surer thing and lasted longer, and through such ordeals of the march that affection might not survive” (76). These are Sherman’s thoughts, and his justifications for the way he treats his men, but I do not agree with him. It is true that he often shows sympathy for civilians, like Pearl, but in this case he is motivated mostly by grief at the death of his son. As a general commanding soldiers, Sherman shows a great sense of responsibility for the war effort, but his lack of sympathy for individual soldiers prevents him from being a great leader.

I have limited respect a relentless military leader who has little sympathy for civilians. For instance, Sherman does not care about the freed slaves. He thinks that he has discharged his duty as a general by freeing them and giving them land. He settles the issue of the fate of 18,000 slaves by signing the “Special Field Order No.15” (349). Yet just issuing an order is not enough for a great leader. As a leader, Sherman is supposed to care about slaves’ lives, even happiness, and give them overall support to survive in their changed circumstances. Instead, he regards freed slaves as burden for him. A great leader not only accomplishes the “task,” but is also considerate to everyone, including freed slaves. As for Southern people, General Sherman essentially abandons them all. Although “he doesn’t war against women and children,” he brings the calamity, hunger, battle and destruction to these innocent people in the South, and his men act disorderly and care for nobody (25). A great leader will approach a military campaign with a deliberate strategy, limit the death and damage as much as possible, and restrict his or her soldiers from inflicting wrack and ruin. Although he is strategic, he is not concerned about death and destruction, and he acquiesces in his soldier’s decisions to set fire to homes and property. Emily Thompson’s description, “this was not an army, it was an infestation,” shows the chaos and human suffering General Sherman’s army brings along in its wake (27).

Work Cited

Doctorow, E.L. The March: A Novel. New York: Random House, Inc., 2005. Print.