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Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership

Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership by Bill O’Neal. Eakin Press, An Imprint of Wild Horse Media Group, 2016, 270 pp. 

 “Remember the Alamo” was a phrase I heard when studying and taking field trips to the Alamo. A few decades later, a sense of pride overwhelms me when pondering how in “October 1835 . . . Gen Santa Anna and an invading army were bombarding the Alamo” (p. 99). During the same month 181 years later, I humbly led my 700th US national anthem in front of this historic mission for the Team Red, White, and Blue “Old Glory Relay.”  

The description of the gallant defense, defeat, and rallying cry of Gen Sam Houston resulted in Texans declaring independence on 2 March 1836, and the defeat of Santa Anna less than two months later. Today’s global conflicts may overshadow these and other events in our nation’s history; however, the leadership lessons and behaviors mentioned in the biography Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership remain relevant for today’s and future leaders.

Mr. O’Neal, the state historian of Texas, is a prolific and eloquent storyteller. Dedicated to his art, he documented General Houston’s journey in a literary and pictorial format that included inserting his photographs in the book. An in-depth scholar, Mr. O’Neal provides a robust bibliography and leadership influence overview to help readers explore the general’s continuous personal and professional growth.

Much of the book predates the United States of America, the War Department, (that is, the present-day Department of Defense [DOD]), and airpower. However, the rich leadership lessons, resilience, and characteristics of General Houston make this book a must-read for anyone who has doubted themselves, desires to enhance their leadership skills, has made a leadership mistake or two, or endeavors to strengthen their resilience.

General Houston embodied “integrity,” “service before self,” and “excellence in all we do.” These were characteristics ingrained in him by his parents and Sam wished to emulate his military hero father. Because of his curious, live outside-the-box nature, Sam lived with a Cherokee tribe as a Cherokee. His charisma and ability to make friends resulted in him being called “the Raven, a Cherokee symbol of good fortune” (p. 7). 

This name was prophetic because more than once General Houston was severely wounded on the battlefield but continued to lead from the front. He made what some in his command deemed bad leadership decisions, and they sought to undermine him. Understanding the depth of leadership, the general adapted his leadership style to complete the mission and developed options to include even those with dissenting opinions. 

General Houston made a transactional decision to not consult with his leaders and take the burden on himself when he directed a strategic retreat from Santa Anna’s Mexican Army. Understanding and accepting the burden of command, he focused on ensuring his troops had time to physically and mentally heal. The general also required inspections and drills to build a cohesive unit to hone skills and work as a team in battle. He employed transformational leadership to discuss options for engaging the Mexican Army. His leadership decisions and battlefield strategy resulted in the defeat of Santa Anna and his troops in 20 minutes. 

Military success was a significant stepping-stone in Sam Houston’s mentors and leadership network that included several key leaders and 14 consecutive US presidents. The foundation for this evolved from voracious reading and the belief he could accomplish anything. Like Abraham Lincoln, he dropped out of school but because of his desire to self-educate, he opened a school. He also learned, studied, and practiced as an attorney.

Perhaps unbeknownst to some, General Houston was a heavy drinker until later in life. He also had two failed marriages before his third marriage to Margaret Lea that lasted 23 years. During one of the darkest times in his early professional life, The Raven returned and found solace with his Cherokee support system. This form of resilience by returning to a place of comfort and healing oneself is noteworthy. General Houston realized that by reaching out for help, he could serve others with a renewed sense of purpose. In today’s hectic environment this is an invaluable lesson for all leaders to employ.

The general’s impressive inclusive perspective and seeking greater positions of authority to influence change resulted in an impressive career path that could inspire generations such as the youngest members of the USAF—the millennials. Specifically, at 21 he was a combat hero, a major general of [the] Tennessee militia, governor of Tennessee . . . general of the Texan army, the first [and only twice] elected president of the Republic of Texas” (p. 171), US congressman (Texas senator), and later governor of Texas. The embodiment of today’s USAF core values, General Houston made several mistakes, learned from them, sought help, and created success for himself and others.

The themes in Mr. O’Neal’s book provide insight into Houston’s character, personal and professional influences, and his determination to create positive change. “Eight years before [President] Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech” (p. 186), Texas senator Houston proclaimed those words in Congress when he differed from many Southerners who emphatically sought secession. Reading about his perspectives, leadership behaviors, failures, and successes could facilitate inclusion within the USAF, the DOD, and those unfamiliar with our rich heritage stemming from leaders like General Houston.

                                         Dr. Katherine Strus, Lt Col, USAF, Retired
San Antonio, Texas

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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