Uplifting Stewardship

(A profile of a great political leader who can be a role model of inspired leadership for a country or the CEO of a company.)

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

-Abraham Lincoln

There are two kinds of leadership. First one is of the ordinary kind which at the best can maintain an efficient status quo and at the worst allows things to degenerate into a chaos. The second one is the uplifting leadership which can save alive a nation’s soul from disaster and raise the individual and corporate life to a higher level of values. Abraham Lincoln is an exemplar of this second kind of leadership. Lincoln is a legend among American people and one of the most admired heroes of American historian and biographers. Numberless biographies are written on him in America. This case study is based on the following sources:

  1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperback.
  2. “Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln” A Conversation with Doris Goodwin in Harvard Business Review, 1st April 2009

The Leader of Rivals

We can get a glimpse of Lincoln’s character when we look at the composition of the Cabinet formed by him after he was elected as the President of US. Lincoln made his arch political rivals his core cabinet team. Initially, none of them liked Lincoln and some of them looked down upon him with contempt and scorn, but Lincoln won over them by his extraordinary character and personality. Stanton, his Secretary of War, who once described Lincoln contemptuously as a ‘long-armed ape,’ became one of his greatest admirers and later said that Lincoln was the “best among us” and “superhuman” in his magnanimity. Similarly, another member of the Cabinet, Bates, who regarded Lincoln as weak and incompetent, later admired him as a near perfect-human being. Goodwin describes this aspect of Lincoln’s characters and leadership:

“It soon became clear; however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals. The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days.” Seward was the first to appreciate Lincoln’s remarkable talents, quickly realizing the futility of his plan to relegate the president to a figurehead role. In the months that followed, Seward would become Lincoln’s closest friend and advisor in the administration. Though Bates initially viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning, but incompetent administrator, he eventually concluded that the president was an unmatched leader, ‘very near being a perfect man.’ Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander-in-chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death. Even Chase, whose restless ambition for the presidency was never realized, at last acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.

Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues were not only his political rivals, but also strong and powerful personalities with a big ego and of very different temperament. For example, Stanton is virtually the opposite of Lincoln in character. “No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike,” Stanton’s private secretary, A.E. Johnson, observed. “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea, even in moments of the gravest peril; Stanton would lash himself into over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan; Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature…yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”

These perceptive comments bring out forcefully Lincoln’s character and his leadership style. He was never surrounded by weak sycophants, but was accompanied always by strong men who will always complement him, which means who can support him with skills and qualities which he himself lacked. They are also men who thought very differently from Lincoln and bold enough to express their disagreement in strong words. Lincoln came to power when his nation was in peril and on the verge of getting split into North and South on the issue of slavery. Lincoln felt strongly that in such a crisis situation, personal likes and dislikes and old animosities or hurt feelings should be set aside in choosing the leaders of a nation. When people asked him why he chose his rivals as his colleagues, Lincoln replied: “we needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet. I had looked the party over and concluded these were the strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” Thus Lincoln did not deliberately choose his rivals as his cabinet colleagues. He chose them because he felt that his rivals are the most able men in his party and the country. As Goodwin points out:

“But you have to remember, the idea is not just to put your rivals in power—the point is that you must choose the best and most able people in the country, for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.”

The Inner Charisma

What made Lincoln the most beloved leader among American people? He cast a spell and a charm over whoever came into contact with him and transformed his rivals into his staunch supporters, friends and admirers, but, Lincoln was not outwardly a charismatic personality. He was tall and lanky, but awkward in his features, appearance and manners with a melancholic sadness in his face. As Goodwin recounts some of the observations of Lincoln’s contemporaries on his outer appearance:

“Lincoln’s shock of black hair, brown furrowed face and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring, his partner William Herndon recalled. He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel. “His legs,” another observer noted, “seemed to drag from the knees down, like those of a labourer going home after a hard day’s work.”

Thus Lincoln’s charisma comes not from his external personality, but from the character of his inner being which came to the front when he started speaking. As a reporter, Horace White observed, “Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart and the promise of true friendship.” All those who came into contact with Lincoln felt this extraordinary inner presence. “It wasn’t anything immediately felt as charisma” states Goodwin, “His popularity almost came from inside out. His cabinet was the first to see something unusual about him. Take William Seward, who originally was a rival. Some eight weeks after becoming secretary of state, Seward wrote to his wife that Lincoln was unlike anyone he’d ever known. Other members of the cabinet came to think so, too. One after another, they came to power thinking Lincoln was rather unexceptional and ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they’d ever met.”

This inner character of Lincoln was made of a sharp, brilliant mind, gifted speech, a will persistently focussed on the purpose and above all an extremely magnanimous heart—all the qualities of a born leader.

We will not enter into the perennial debate on whether a leader is born or made? In the integral perspective it is both. In every human being, there is an external personality and an inner being. The external self is mostly shaped by the outer environment and genetics, and the inner being contains the accumulated result of our past evolution through many births. Both these external and inner being can grow and develop through a process of unconscious natural evolution and a self-directed conscious evolution, through education, experience and discipline. However, the inner being of a person is to a certain extent born. A well-developed inner being, the “born” element in a person, can come forward and make itself felt even during childhood or the early years of growth. Most of the great leaders including Lincoln exhibit leadership qualities during their early years of child and youth. Goodwin recounting the childhood days of Lincoln, writes:

Even as a child, Lincoln dreamed heroic dreams. From the outset, he was cognizant of a destiny far beyond that of his unlettered father and hardscrabble childhood. “He was different from those around him,” the historian Douglas Wilson writes. “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential.” To the eyes of his schoolmates, Lincoln was “clearly exceptional,” Lincoln biographer David Donald observes, “and he carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.” His mind and ambition, his childhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled, “Soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read & thoroughly read his books whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader.”

The sadness in Lincoln’s personality is predominantly external, probably the result of his hard and difficult childhood and youth, but as the reporter Horace White observed when Lincoln speaks his inner being came into the front animating his outer self.

Leading from the Heart

Lincoln was endowed with a keen and wide intelligence, but he was not an intellectual by temperament. He was basically a man of action who led from his heart. One of the most prominent qualities of his personality, which made him an endearing leader, is his Himalayan magnanimity, which his cabinet colleague, Stanton, describes as “superhuman.” This superlative appreciation of Stanton was perhaps based on his own experience of Lincoln’s magnanimity. Stanton was a professional rival of Lincoln. When Lincoln was pursuing his career as a lawyer, Stanton deprived Lincoln of a lucrative offer from a client, by talking ill of Lincoln and persuading the client to give the assignment to him. Stanton told the client: “Why did you bring that long-armed Ape here–he does not know anything and do no good.” However, Lincoln remained in the court to see Stanton representing his client. Lincoln listened with rapt attention and was very much impressed by Stanton’s talent as a lawyer and his dedication to his profession and his client. Later, when Lincoln became president and met Stanton after six years, he offered Stanton the most powerful and important post as the Secretary of War.

Goodwin regards this “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation or bitterness” as one of the great leadership qualities of Lincoln. Stanton was won over by Lincoln’s magnanimity and “   come to respect and love Lincoln more than any other person outside of his immediate family.” Lincoln’s magnanimity was not confined to his VIP colleagues, but flowed equally to people in all the levels of the economic, social and political hierarchy. Here is an interesting episode recounted by Goodwin:

“The story is told of an army colonel who rode out to the Soldiers’ Home, hopeful of securing Lincoln’s aid in recovering the body of his wife, who had died in a steamboat accident.  His brief period of relaxation interrupted, Lincoln listened to the colonel’s tale, but offered no help.  “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?” The disheartened colonel returned to his hotel in Washington.  The following morning, Lincoln appeared at his door, “I was a brute last night,” Lincoln said, offering to help the colonel in any way possible.”

This magnanimity of Lincoln’s temperament expressed itself in his mind as a wide, mental, tolerance with a readiness to listen to, accept, understand or learn from different and conflicting view-points or in otherwords, the ability for democratic leadership. Lincoln listened patiently with a genuine openness to the view-points of his colleagues before coming to a decision. The other aspects of his mental magnanimity is his willingness to accept his mistakes and also assume responsibility for others mistakes. “He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes” says Goodwin and “took responsibility for what he did and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others.”

The other important quality of Lincoln’s character is his empathy, which according to Goodwin is the ability to “put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Lincoln was uncommonly tenderhearted. He once stopped and tracked back half a mile to rescue a pig caught in mire. This quality of empathy made Lincoln not only compassionate and a little melancholic, but also successful as a leader. As Goodwin explains:

“Though Lincoln’s empathy was at the root of his melancholy, it would prove an enormous asset to his political career. “His crowning gift of political diagnosis,” suggested Nicolay, “was due to his sympathy…which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.” She described how, after listening to his colleagues talk at a Whig Party caucus, Lincoln would cast off his shawl, rise from his chair, and say: “From your talk, I gather the democrats will do so and so…I should do so and so to checkmate them.” He proceeded to outline all “the moves for days ahead; making them all so plain that his listeners wondered why they had not seen it that way themselves.” Such capacity to intuit the inward feelings and intentions of others would be manifest throughout his career.”

As we said earlier, Lincoln was a little melancholic, but not depressed. On the contrary, had remarkable sense of humour, which he regarded as the “joyous, universal evergreen of life” and as an integral part of his personality. Lincoln’s humour is not cynical, but “life-affirming” and almost everyone who came into contact with Lincoln testified that he was “an extraordinarily-funny man.” Lincoln was a born story-teller who charmed people with his witty lore’s which are not only funny, but with a moral significance. While talking about the early youthful years of Lincoln, Goodwin writes:

“In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories or his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chances to hear a master storyteller. Everywhere he went, he won devoted followers, friendships that later emboldened his quest for office.”

This sense of humour, and the gift for oratory and storytelling made Lincoln a great communicator, which enhanced his effectiveness as a leader. “This great story-telling talent and oratorical skill” states Goodwin “would eventually constitute his stock-in-trade throughout both his legal and political career. The passion for rendering experience into powerful language remained with Lincoln throughout his life.”

MS Srinivasan

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