What Abraham Lincoln Has To Say To Today’s Innovators

This week marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration – an inauguration made more poignant in retrospect by his assassination a few short weeks afterward.  It is, however, the address he gave to the assembled guests that history remembers, and with good reason.

I remember when I “discovered” that particular speech.  Like many, I grew up learning about his more famous Gettysburg address, and as both a resident of Illinois and a child who loved books, I always felt a special connection to Lincoln.  I had the opportunity to first visit the Lincoln memorial when I was in high school, and it was then that I did an about-face after reading the Gettysburg address carved into the south wall and for the first time focused on the inaugural address carved into the north wall.  All of us are at least familiar with it’s final paragraph (“With malice toward none, with charity for all…”).

Reflecting upon the lives of great leaders is always time well spent.  There are countless books about Lincoln’s leadership style, perhaps none better than Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  For those of you who want to delve deeper into Lincoln’s second inaugural address, let me recommend Lincoln’s Greatest Speech by Ronald C. White, Jr.

Lincoln BooksI was in a bookstore recently and picked up a small pamphlet, shown here with the other two books I mentioned, of some of Lincoln’s writings.  In it, I ran across this gem, a speech delivered to the Springfield Library Association in 1859 called “Lecture on Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements”.  Evidently it is a second version of a lecture Lincoln gave in a number of locations.  While historians (and Lincoln himself) were not particularly enthralled with the effort, there are some great passages that are worthy of reflection.

He illustrates the difference between the present and the past through use of the terms “Young America” and “Old Fogy”.  (About Old Fogy Lincoln comically says “…if there can be anything old which he can endure, it is only old whisky and old tobacco”.)

Let me quote this one section:

The great difference between Young America and Old Fogy, is the result of Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements.  These, in turn, are the result of observation, reflection, and experiment.  For instance, it is quite certain that ever since water has been boiled in covered vessels, men have seen the lids of the vessels rise and fall a little, with a sort of fluttering motion, by force of the steam; but so long as this was not specially observed, and reflected, and experimented upon, it came to nothing.  At length, however, after many thousand years, some man observes this long-known effect of hot water lifting a pot-lid, and begins a train of reflection upon it.  He says, “Why, to be sure, the force that lifts the pot-lid will lift any thing else which is no heavier that the pot-lid.” “And as man has much hard lifting to do, can not this hot-water power be made to help him?”  He has become a little excited on the subject, and he fancies he hears a voice answering “Try me.”  He does try it, and the observation, reflection, and trial gives to the world the control of that tremendous, and now well known agent, called steam-power.  This is not the actual history in detail, but the general principle.

What a simple, yet profound, observation – one that applies as directly to the early 21st century as it did in the mid-19th century – namely, that curiosity and “trial” are the flint and kindling that are required to ignite the fires of innovation.

My friend Brian has just launched his third Kickstarter campaign after two earlier, successful campaigns for a different product.  I enjoy the fact that Brian describes his creative process as “innovation through frustration” – sort of like a guy who is frustrated about how much he has to lift every day, staring at the lid of his tea pot as it starts to make a fluttering motion……

Postscript/Good Links:
For the full text of Lincoln’s second inaugural, go here.
For a fascinating look at the contents of his pockets the night he died, go here (I highly recommend reading the press clippings he had in his wallet).
For a cool interview with Brian about his Kickstarter success, go here.  The interview is conducted very well by another friend, James Oliver from ‘trepLifeDad.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • Michael McBrien

    It was great spending the afternoon with you at The Henry Ford. It was inspiring to see the Washington and Lincoln artifacts. We are really blessed to have had some really great leaders in our history. I really enjoyed your post!

    • http://michaeldiamond.com/ Michael Diamond

      Thanks Mike. That visit fired up several thoughts. That is an amazing museum, and like many great museums it cannot be covered in one visit.

  • http://fwhesse.wordpress.com/ Fritz Hesse

    Thanks Mike. This is the essence of the Agile mindset.

    • http://michaeldiamond.com/ Michael Diamond

      Good to know Fritz – thanks!