Leadership: Lincoln, Obama and the rest of us

16 Apr

In the latest Harvard Business Review (April 09) there's a terrific article called 'Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln'. Much is made of the stated intention of President Obama to model his presidency on Abraham Lincoln.
The article is based on a conversation with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote an award-winning book on Lincoln's leadership during the US Civil War period.
One of the key insights is a lesson to be applied more broadly than political leadership. Goodwin notes that both Lincoln and Obama have surrounded themselves with people who were the best in their fields, even though they may come from opposite parties, and who would in fact challenge and disagree with their President.

'Lincoln surrounded himself with people, including his rivals, who had strong egos and high ambitions; who felt free to question his authority; and who were unafraid to argue with him.' At least one was known to be plotting against him.
Here we see an interesting set of challenges, also evident in Obama's administration. If your team includes people of different persuasions, you will spend a lot of time in debate and discussion. But eventually leadership has to decide. And Lincoln did. Debate, consultation and consideration has to stop somewhere, if anything is ever to get done. Lincoln's team debated the 'if' and 'when' of the abolition of slavery. He finally announced what he would be doing, and some in his team were not happy. But they knew that they had been heard, and respected, even if not agreed with.
Goodwin notes too that this style of leadership led to intense loyalty to the President. This was surely related to Lincoln's willingness to take responsibility for what he did, including accepting a share of responsibility for mistakes, including the mistakes made by others in his team. People were not hung out to dry. If anything, historians suggest Lincoln was sometimes loyal to members of his team for too long. 'Lincoln's greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them. He always wanted to give somebody a second or even a third chance.'
Goodwin sees in Lincoln an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence: 'He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes to a remarkable degree.'
It is also noteworthy that he had a good sense of humour and was a great story-teller.
Goodwin, who has studied the lives of other Presidents, notes that all the 'great' ones who lived through major challenges (such as Lincoln and FDR) were people who nonetheless had diversions, hobbies or something they did to relax. They had a life. I would say that gave them perspective, of the ordinary within the extraordinary. This reminds me of something I once heard, I believe it was a statement of Winston Churchill: 'great' people are not those who do extraordinary things; they are the people who keep on doing the ordinary things in extraordinary times.
Another interesting observation about Lincoln is that he did not much read biographies. Rather, he found inspiration in 'the documents of American history—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence'.
What is interesting for me is to consider some of the implications of this article for Christian leadership. It is not generally thought to be a good idea to surround oneself with people of opposing views. Catholics don't generally appoint non-Catholics to leadership in their churches, any more than Baptists would allow a Catholic to head up their theological college. Is this a strength or a weakness?
I have long held to the view, theoretically, that it is best always to have a range of views within the classroom, the team meeting, etc. I have admired the view of John Stuart Mill, that when a belief is not opposed, it soon become prejudice—so it is in the interest of genuine belief and intelligent action always to attend to the dissident voices. Mill maintained that if there was a society where 99% held one view, it was the duty of government to ensure the freedom of expression of that 1%, for the sake of the 99 as much as for the sake of the 1%. But all that is much easier in theory than in practice! Especially so, if you are the leader being opposed!
It is also interesting to consider the value Lincoln gave to historic documents. In Christian leadership today, there are many who seem to think that the important insights are to be found in current management practices, in sociological insights or even the de-bunking of 'tradition' of all kinds. (As if this is not itself a tradition!)
I find it challenging to recognize that it is the Bible, and its stories of people in many contexts and situations, always seeking to work out their faith, discipleship and ethical living, that provides us with the most relevant and the most liberating inspiration. If we only learned to read it in this way. That's my job … to offer these 'historic documents' as inspiration for leaders and people alike.
It is helpful, too,  note the importance of making decisions. Eventually, leadership has to lead. I have held this view, and known the criticism of those who want more consultation. I think leadership has do decide how much consultation is enough, and has to make judgments about which matters need more, and which matters can do with less, consultation. It is the tyranny of process to imagine that every matter has to be subject to equal amounts of consultation. But that can too easily become an excuse. Balance, and judgment, are needed. And this is exactly where it is helpful to have within one's team those who challenge such judgments and question the processes.
Leading a church, especially a church with a congregational form of government, is no easy task. Leadership is much more than politics, and we are impoverished in our political life, and in church life, if leadership become impossible because of the endless political games played by people too small in their vision to see beyond their own ambitions.
It takes courage, inner strength and 'emotional intelligence' to lead. Even then, none of this is a guarantee of success. Leadership is at most something we can offer. We can propose, persuade, set forth a vision: but it will be leadership only if the people choose to follow. That begins with our team and then with the wider community. Without this offering, there is only management, or manipulation, and control. But when there is such an offering, and where people have learned to hear, to receive that offering and vision, they may choose to follow. We may pray for and hope for such leadership. And if it is our task and calling to do so, to offer such a lead.

2 thoughts on “Leadership: Lincoln, Obama and the rest of us

  1. Don’t know is not terrible and harmful, anyone could not know everything, terrible and harmful is not know pretending to know.

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