As a young pastor in my first full time pastoral position, I began facing conflict from one of the families in the church. It was a fairly small church averaging just under 100 in Sunday morning attendance. There were about five families that had been in leadership in the church for over 30 years. The gentleman of one of the families began to feel threatened as I trained and empowered prospective leaders. He saw his power and influence eroding even though I offered to work with him along with the others. My district superintendent was an older man who had many years of ministry experience. He never played favorites but he always had your back! On a regularly scheduled visit he asked how things were going and I told him about the conflict. I will never forget his response. He told me to keep my friends close and those who were giving me trouble even closer. He encouraged me to “up” my prayer life and mention them in prayer more than ever. He told me to pursue my relationship with this individual and his family with sincerity and genuineness. I did. Though he eventually resigned from board leadership and then the family stopped attending the church I always had a clear conscience and he realized he could not manipulate his power. It did not end the best, but it did end without any serious fallout impacting the church. Lincoln certainly had his share of rivals!
Though I did not read every word I really enjoyed Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. I also looked through the study guide for her book entitled Study Guide for Team of Rivals by Alex Mauldin. Reading the book gave one insight into the life and leadership of Abraham Lincoln in the context of political intrigue and the chaotic domestic conflict of civil war. My overarching take away from the book is that Lincoln was not a man set on establishing a legacy for himself. His ambition was clean. In stark contrast, one of his rivals, Judge Edward Bates, once wrote, “Ambition is a passion, at once strong and insidious, and is very apt to cheet a man out of his happiness and his true respectability of character.” Later, according to Goodwin, he changed, “Gradually, however, as letters and newspaper editorials advocating his candidacy crowded in upon him, a desire for the highest office in the land took command of his nature. (pg. 25). Lincoln had ambition but, Goodwin writes, “Lincoln’s profound and elevated sense of ambition—“an ambition,” Fehrenbacher observes, [was] “notably free of pettiness , malice, and overindulgence.” (pg. 265).
My heart was won for Lincoln when I read how he invoked the Declaration of Independence in a powerful speech that won widespread approval. Goodwin notes that after this speech he realized he had found his path and that was to fight against slavery. In the speech “Lincoln implored his audience to re-adopt the Declaration of Independence and ‘return [slavery] to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace.’ This accomplishment, he pledged, would save the Union, and ‘succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.’” (pp. 168-9). This reminds me of a leadership principle that notes the importance of taking a stand on some issue that has broad impact and focusing on the issue as a way to guide one’s path forward.
Lincoln’s clean ambition was expressed with quips of wisdom. One such comment that Goodwin reported I thought very valuable, ““In great contests,” he wrote in a fragment found among his pages, “each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party,” (pg. 479).
Returning to my opening paragraph about conflict, I delighted to read Goodwin’s account of the conflict with Chase and Seward. Goodwin writes, “Welles immediately fathomed Lincoln’s insistence on keeping the two rivals close despite their animosity: “Seward comforts him,— Chase he deems a necessity.” By retaining both men, Lincoln kept the balance in his cabinet. When Senator Ira Harris called on him shortly after he had received Chase’s resignation, Lincoln was in a buoyant mood. “Yes, Judge,” he said, employing a metaphor shaped by his rural childhood, “I can ride on now, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag!” (pg.. 494). At a time when the political factions could have broken any opportunity to hold the union together, Lincoln was just the man who could pull this off. And he was able only because he was not out to build his name but to build a great nation. I am severely stressed at how differently the present administration in America is handing conflict. Even as I write this I am sure that opponents will ask me why those on the other side do not pursue the president. Good point. But not an excuse! The executive must reach out and pursue.
The last word about this conflict is as follows, “For Lincoln, the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency had ended in victory. He had treated the senators with dignity and respect and, in the process, had protected the integrity and autonomy of his cabinet.” (pg 496). Lincoln had treated his rivals with dignity and respect. That is a powerful and wonderful epitaph to the political battle. He was not in campaign mode nor was he building a legacy. He was holding a nation together that would continue to rise to greatness. Lincoln deserves great credit for his leadership and those who take his lead would benefit.
How do we keep our rivals close? How does ones ambition impact our relationships with rivals?
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2005.
Alex L. Mauldin. Study Guide for Team of Rivals, Alex L. Mauldin, 2013.