July 2013

Lincoln, Leaders and Self-Doubt

by Ed Ruggero

If you've ever been in a leadership position of any kind, from president of your middle school class to CEO of a Fortune 100 company, you know that at some point, someone questioned your ability, if not your intelligence, motives, or sanity. As big boys and girls, we know we're not supposed to let ungrounded criticism rattle us—we've got to soldier on. Sticks and stones and all that.

You may be comforted to know that one of the most revered leaders in American history suffered the same indignities. In his perseverance there are lessons for modern leaders.

"Lincoln was an Idiot"

The title of this article on the Facebook page of The Atlantic caught my eye. Mark Bowden (author of Blackhawk Down) does a good job of showing how Lincoln was subject to vicious criticism during his time in office. The fact that our sixteenth President persevered offers several lessons for leaders.

Sometimes People Need to be Led, Not Followed.

One of the last stops on our Gettysburg Leadership Experience is the Soldiers' Cemetery, where Lincoln gave the remarks that we know as The Gettysburg Address. The speech, once printed, drew a firestorm of criticism. His line that our nation was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" was a reference to the Declaration of Independence; but for most Northerners at the time, the war was not about equality, and it certainly was not about ending slavery—it was about preserving the Union. Lincoln's critics were incensed that the President ignored the Constitution, which is the basis for our laws and was, after all, the very thing that Lincoln swore to uphold. How dare he, newspaper editors and the opposition party demanded to know, while standing "amid the very graves" of the men who died to preserve the Union, try to make their effort about something else?

Garry Wills, in his masterful Lincoln at Gettysburg, points out that Lincoln was reaching for something more. The Declaration of independence represents the highest ideals we can aspire to; the Constitution is just the (flawed) set of laws we have at the moment to help us move toward a better goal. If the laws need to be improved, then we must improve them to move us closer to the ideal—which is exactly what Lincoln did when he championed the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery.

Lincoln was not following the people, nor reacting to popular opinion (though he was skilled at that, too). In his brief remarks in November 1863, Lincoln led the nation. He called on America to be better than it was. Sometimes leaders need to be just that bold, to articulate a vision for what is possible.

Leaders Do the Right Thing

Another thing that struck me in Bowden's column was the fact that Lincoln was sensitive to the personal attacks made on him. His actions cost him and his family dearly, and he had no guarantee that he was going to turn out to be right. Lincoln did not know he would become the most admired of our Presidents, that generations of American school children would learn his speeches, or that millions of freed slaves would call him "Father Abraham."

In leader development we often say that leaders should strive to do the right even when no one is watching. Lincoln's example now makes me think that bar is too low. Perhaps we should talk about how good leaders follow their conscience and seek to do the right thing even when doing so will result in professional calamity, personal suffering, possibly even historical ignominy.

Would I risk not only my job, but my reputation—or at least my popular reputation—to do what I thought was right?

Leaders Persevere

Finally, consider what Bowden's piece says about all Lincoln put up with: the constant attacks and criticism, the vicious insults, even calls for his death (and not just from Confederates). Still, he persevered. It's a simple lesson, really, but one of the most important ones we can learn from this physically ungainly, unschooled and often unloved man who did so much to give us the nation we have and the rights we enjoy.