Gen. Robert E. Lee,
higher ed innovator,
inspires encore careers
Has the tumultuous job market got you fretting about what to do next? You’re not alone. And among the folks wondering about their next career are millions of Baby Boomers. Many don’t plan on early retirement, but they worry age discrimination or technological shifts might block their way to a new phase.
Now me, I’m an optimist. Not only have I weathered several reinventions, but through my work as an executive coach I have a close-up view of people finding satisfying second and third acts. I was contemplating the new phenomenon of encore careers a few months ago, when we visited Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
As I mused, we wandered into the lovely Lee Chapel & Museum, where we saw the office in which Gen. Robert E. Lee actually worked during his last years. It struck me that encore careers aren’t all that new, and Gen. Lee is a fine example of how reinvention is possible no matter how badly your current career may end. After suffering an extraordinary defeat, Lee became a peacetime visionary and stimulated the reform of American higher education.
Just 20 weeks after surrendering at Appomattox, Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia. As Charles Bracelen Flood describes in his moving book, Lee, The Last Years, the general had hesitated for several weeks about whether to accept the job. He didn’t know whether his health could stand the strain. He hated aspects of the role, like fund-raising and public speaking. And he thought he still might be charged with treason.
The college was a shambles, emerging from the war years with no money, buildings still occupied by Federal troops, and only about 40 students. Lee didn’t take the job because it seemed like a promising opportunity. What moved him to sign on was his understanding of a larger mission.
In urging Lee to accept the job, the college trustees had appealed to his sense of duty, arguing that the future of the former Confederate States of America depended on its ability to train its young men. On the day after his inauguration, Lee wrote, “I think the South requires the aid of her sons now more than at any period in her history.”
So within months after his crushing defeat as the general in command of all Confederate forces, Lee looked to the future and launched his encore career. In the last five years of his life, he revitalized and reorganized the College that, after his death, would be renamed “Washington and Lee University.” Moving beyond the traditional approach to higher education, he envisioned a program of “practical education” that would train young men to rebuild the South. An innovator who knew how to recognize and implement others’ good ideas, Lee redesigned curriculum and introduced new fields of study, like business and journalism.
Lee’s achievements in higher education influenced universities throughout the nation. At the same time, he became a model of how to accept defeat. Lee’s extraordinary career transition, following crushing defeat, exemplifies one of the most important attributes of resilient careerists: When one path leads to a dead end, they dig deep, focus on a big goal, and start taking steps.
Encore career lessons from Gen. Lee:
- Don’t obsess about the past. Instead of giving in to sorrow about all that was lost, within weeks after Appomattox Lee shifted his focus to the future. Flood says: “To a Confederate widow who was expressing hatred for the North, he said, ‘Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.’”
- Look for a way to make a difference: Lee didn’t set out to win personal kudos as an educator. He looked around the post-War South and saw a pressing need: a new generation of engineers, manufacturers, journalists and others with the skills to rebuild the economy. If you’re contemplating an encore career, think about the issues that really get your juices flowing. Is there some way you can contribute to change, and make the world a better place at the same time you earn an income? (For more on creating an encore career with social impact, visit Encore.org)
- Connect with others. Lee knew he needed help to rebuild the college, and he quickly reached out to friends and even strangers throughout the United States. His first big supporter was Chicago inventor Cyrus H. McCormick, who sent a check for $10,000.