Lincoln: The greater good

The struggle over the greater good revealed the character and leadership ability of Lincoln.

At first, Lincoln was mildly inspirational about his desire to see the thirteenth amendment passed. He was somewhat aloof, casting vision and attempting to cash in political capital. He struggled with his desire to end a war that had claimed 600,000 lives and yet the moral opportunity to change America forever for the good.

Honest Abe was very open with his cabinet about his struggles over legality. He showed vulnerability in pursuing the best course he could see at the time. Was he right to use war powers? Did he really have the ability to emancipate the slaves as seized property? He admitted that all those previous steps would leave him very much exposed if he didn’t take it all the way and win legal freedom for the slaves. In the end, his vulnerability won over his leadership team.

Then Lincoln struggled with the means. He tried to keep his hands clean, asking his Secretary of State to organize the dirty work himself. But when push came to shove, Lincoln abandoned deniability and realized the vote would fail without his personal involvement. He waded into the work to win votes, meeting personally with some key leaders who were on the fence.

He led from a broad base of input and used a broad range of tools. He sought input from voices as disparate as influential donors, a cabinet of political foes, soldiers both black and white, telegraph men and White House servants. He pushed, pulled, cajoled and won over. Only when he’d narrowed the gap to two votes at the eleventh hour did he attempt to bring his considerable power to bear.

In the end, he had to sit back and hope that he’d done enough. It was out of his control. Thankfully, it went the way he desired. But that’s leadership: you really only have influence, and then people make their own decisions.

This film was a completely different story than Amazing Grace, which detailed a 40-year peaceful struggle to free the slaves. But Lincoln was just as compelling a story and leadership profile. It left me thinking, and it left me inspired. Continue reading

Lincoln: Be yourself

Another thing I noted on watching Lincoln: the president was comfortable with himself, as unlikely his path to the presidency had been.

I loved the way Lincoln was confident enough to pull in a seemingly-random metaphor or tell a story, and not flinching even when it ended up falling flat or seeming irrelevant. His Secretary of War had no time for his stories, at one point walking out when he began one at a bad time. But he pretended not to notice and calmly told his story anyway.

I anticipate, in my second year in this role, I will begin to gain confidence to be myself and not try to emulate any other leaders. That’s been a difficulty for me, especially in the early months as the search process got serious. I was working in the Offices of the President of Wycliffe USA and had the opportunity to observe Bob Creson closely for two years. Frankly, I do a poor imitation of him. I also do a poor Lincoln, a poor Churchill, a poor Bill Hybels and a poor Andy Stanley. The best advice I ever got on this subject came from a Dove chocolate wrapper:

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

I think at times this year, I’ve pursued likability and political capital through a strategy of not offending anyone. Perhaps that was an appropriate strategy for my first year. My second year will require something different, however. The challenges ahead will require stronger vision, more resolve and deeper vulnerability. Love it or leave it, I’m going to be myself. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading