Lincoln: Getting past the stereotypes

I watched the Lincoln movie with my wife last weekend. Someone had described it to me as the American version of Amazing Grace. Indeed, that movie could have been called “Wilberforce,” and this one could have been called, “Emancipation.” Both recorded a journey to eradicate a horrific practice. Both were excellent portrayals of leaders and leadership. And both stirred in me a deep longing to grow as a leader.

There were a few themes that hit me, and I’ll hit them in a handful of blog posts.

The first theme was that Lincoln was more than his myth.

It’s dangerous in film to take on such a well-known personality as Lincoln. You have to include the elements everyone knows, but without falling for the trap of thinking we therefore know the real Lincoln. The film waded in on a couple of key points to create a more 3-dimensional man rather than the 2-dimensional myth.

First, the famed orator. There’s a funny moment when everyone gathers around a flag, anticipating another great speech. Lincoln takes his time pulling his speech notes out of his hat. Then he delivers a one-minute speech built around a single point. When he looks up and sees everyone waiting for more, he smiles and says, “That’s my speech.” It reminds me of a graphic designer who mentored me once. He had spent a year traveling around the world to meet the top ten designers of his generation. As he entered the office of one of them, he eagerly complimented the man’s work. The man gestured to a wall of filing cabinets and said grumpily, “Most of my work is junk. I pay the bills with thousands of sub-par projects. You remember the 2-3 in 20 years that are worth mentioning.”

Second, his wife’s mental state. The film does a good job of creating empathy for a woman who never recovered from her son’s death. Abraham internalized his grief while his wife dealt with it externally. Paralyzed by the idea that she would lose another son, Mary became mentally and physically unstable. In the final scene when (spoiler alert) she reacts to her husband’s death, you can just imagine how it will unhinge her. Just before that scene, she muses with her husband on a buggy ride about how history will remember her as the crazy woman by his side. He naturally denies it and tries to assure her, but she was sadly prescient.

It’s easy for the public to develop a robust, stylized image of a leader based on the snapshots that are publicly available to them. These are usually far from reality. It’s probably even more common to do this with their spouses, fitting them into a small set of pre-conceived notions of a leader’s helpmate. Just think about the popular stereotypes fashioned of Prince Philip, Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Tammy Faye Bakker.

Of course, leaders do contribute to the misconceptions. We all like to be seen in a certain light, and we know that there are things we can put out on Facebook or in image that reinforce the image. But this film has me asking what I can do to be more transparent, more open, better known.

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One year reflection

One of my colleagues recently asked me if I’d taken the time to reflect on my first year in the job. I did some quick, on-the-fly verbal processing with her and then began a longer personal reflection. My basis was the idea of examen and the specific questions, “In what areas did you experience consolation?” and “In what areas did you experience desolation?” I am trying to incorporate those questions into my quarterly days of prayer and an annual retreat. But if I’m to incorporate reflection into my weekly or daily practices, I’ve finally concluded I need to condense to one question. Two questions decreases the likelihood of follow-through. So it comes down to this: “Where did I see God at work in either the positive or negative events I experienced?”

I know you’re interested in my answers to those questions, but they’re more personal than I want to get into in this public a forum. Instead, this forum warrants a different question that you may find relevant: “After a year of leading an organization at the highest level, do I still stand by the leadership theories I espoused here in this blog?”

In general, I still feel strongly about the philosophy I articulated here. Of course, there are a few posts that show some naiveté, but surprisingly few that I would take back. While the purposes of my two and a half years in leadership development were to invest in others and initiate leadership development and succession planning programs for the organization, I was the one who benefitted the most. I used that period as a self-study masters in leadership.

Bobby Clinton talks about the phases in the life of a leader. To really digest his material requires extended reflection on a leader’s experiences, beliefs and practices. Those years afforded me the time to reflect and articulate a leadership philosophy that has allowed me to feel slightly less like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Believe me: I am no MBA grad or Six Sigma consultant, plugging in formulas and templates for every challenge. My leadership philosophy and practice is much more reactive and organic; it’s centred around critical thinking, brainstorming and art direction. Yes, I am a design thinker who leads on the canvas of reality rather than idealism. I love to incorporate the creativity of others in my solutions. And I’ll compromise on specific ideas to get 80-90% of my goal.

I’ve found that philosophy to be well-suited to the circumstances I inherited at Wycliffe Canada.

Stay tuned. No doubt I have plenty of time to eat my words. But that’s part of my philosophy as well: sometimes ready-fire-aim and then fire again is more appropriate than the ideal alternative. You just have to be quick to apologize when you get it wrong, and try again.