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.

Read my series on Lincoln:

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