In 2008, everyone from President-elect Obama to my wife's ten-year-old nephew was talking about Abraham Lincoln's leadership. Obviously Lincoln hasn't done anything new lately, but we feel his influence. That and the approaching bicentennial of his birth make him worth studying today.
To borrow phrases from the modern parlance of leadership, Lincoln put together the best team he could find, created and shared a clear and compelling vision, and reaffirmed our highest values when compromise would have been easier.
Many leaders hear the advice, "Surround yourself with the best people," and interpret it as, "Surround yourself with people who think just like you do." When Lincoln looked around for the best minds, those most likely to save the nation, he found what the country needed in men who had opposed him for the Republican nomination, who thought themselves far and away more qualified for the presidency.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (one of the books that captured Obama's imagination in 2008) tells us that Lincoln put aside jealousy and small-mindedness because these men were the best choices for the nation, and the nation was in peril.
Secretary of State William Seward accepted the cabinet position because he thought he could control this former one-term Congressman from a frontier state, and thus run the country himself. Seward soon saw Lincoln's brilliance at forging alliances and balancing competing interests in the government and the nation, and became one of Lincoln's most ardent supporters.
As a military historian, I am drawn to the clarity of Lincoln's war aims. He knew that to defeat the rebellion, he had to destroy the South's ability to wage war, and in the east that meant crushing Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln--who taught himself military strategy on-the-job--maintained this vision in the face of trials large and small, from minor setbacks to his years-long effort to find a general who would pursue this vision with vigor.
When he finally found Ulysses Grant, by all appearances a commander who could carry out this vision, Lincoln stuck by him. In 1862 Grant's forces suffered some thirteen thousand casualties at Shiloh, the largest battle of the war to date. James McPherson, in Tried By War, his excellent new book on Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, writes:
Newspaper correspondents who descended on the field after the battle reported that Grant had been surprised on the first day because he was drunk or incompetent.
The stories spread across the country and soon Lincoln was besieged by politicians demanding Grant's dismissal. Lincoln investigated, determined that the critics had their facts wrong and kept Grant in command. For this the President weathered storms of criticism, but was eventually proved right.
But it may be that Lincoln resonates now most strongly because he calls us to aspire.
In November 1863, Lincoln was asked to give a few "appropriate remarks" at the dedication of the Soldier's Cemetery at Gettysburg. The featured speaker, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours while Lincoln's remarks lasted but a few minutes. Many of Lincoln's detractors--and they were legion--were incensed that this man who had sworn to uphold the Constitution instead elevated the Declaration of Independence as the nation's most important foundational document.
It is in the Declaration that Lincoln finds evidence that this new nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Those phrases do not appear in the Constitution, in the letter of the law Lincoln and every President before or since, promised to uphold. As Gary Wills points out in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln "distinguished between the Declaration as the statement of a permanent ideal and the Constitution as an early and provisional embodiment of that ideal, to be tested against it, kept in motion towards it."
The Constitution, as a workaday basis for law, is a changing and imperfect document, the best we can do right now, and as such it is full of compromises. Standing near those fresh graves at Gettysburg, Lincoln called us to aim higher. We compromise to achieve workable laws until we can do better, until we can draw even closer to our highest ideals. The highest ideals in the American canon are not the ones found in the Constitution which, in its earliest version, tolerated slavery. Our highest ideals were enumerated by the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . . That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power for the consent of the governed."
The start of 2009 is a good time to remind ourselves that Lincoln, perhaps our wisest pubic philosopher, put his faith first, last and always in the people and our on-going efforts to improve how we govern ourselves.
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