I recently had a brief stop in Washington D.C and as I always do when I’m in that city, I walked to the Lincoln Memorial. I remember another visit, years ago, when the city was under the sort of locally-declared “snow emergency” that makes people from the midwest laugh, and I was the only person in front of Abe that night, surrounded by quiet snow and a quiet city. My visits are always a special moment for me, and bring me back to the first time I was there as a boy, and my discovery of Lincoln’s greatest speech.
We all have the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address etched into our minds. We laugh at Lincoln’s prediction that the world will “little note nor long remember” his speech, and unsurprisingly, the full text of that address is etched on the wall in the south chamber. But as a boy, I remember the discovery of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, etched on the massive wall in the north chamber.
Many of us are familiar with his famous closing line (“With malice toward none, with charity for all…”) but maybe only have a passing awareness of the full text of the speech.
Years ago I read Ronald White’s excellent book about that address, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. When Lincoln gave it, the brutal American Civil War was nearing it’s conclusion, and Lincoln was preparing the country for the reconstruction to come – a reconstruction he would tragically not preside over due to his death six weeks later.
Since we talk about leadership, innovation and personal effectiveness in this blog, let’s consider some insights from this speech.
- Tough Love. Lincoln strikes a tone of hopefulness while taking humanity to the woodshed. In a speech steeped in biblical reference, Lincoln points out to assembled northerners – who at that moment had reason to be feeling triumphant – that even their prayers had not been answered “fully”. He acknowledged that while slavery was “…not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it”.
- Do you give “small but often” feedback to your team? Do you call out their “opportunities for self-improvement” in a constructive manner?
- Can you do this and be hopeful at the same time?
- Forward Looking. Lincoln clearly sets forth a challenge for the future (“…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…”).
- We live in an era of short-term thinking. Your company might not need you to stand on a soap box in the middle of the office and proclaim great initiatives for the next several years, but having some vision about the future is vital for a leader.
- Leaders say “we need to go here – it is a great place to be, it is worthy of our efforts, and we can make it if we work together”. Lincoln is laying forth a great challenge, and competitive people respond to challenges. Have you outlined where you want to go, and why its both worthy and possible?
All of us suffer in comparison with Lincoln. The point isn’t to be Lincoln, but instead to be inspired by him. Lincoln was an unsophisticated prairie lawyer who wouldn’t have stood a chance in our media age, but he continues to demonstrate to us that great leadership is less a function of sophistication and more a function of intellect and wisdom.