Lincoln was a man who not only engineered the war victory that brought a great nation together, but who did so through exercising exceptional and humble leadership skills. He was a man who had a strong sense of purpose for his life, coupled with a clear vision: that “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” [i]
It could be said that Lincoln himself knew firsthand the reality of obtaining this equal chance in life, having come from such humble, poor beginnings, and who had to seize every opportunity to learn and advance himself through his sheer hard work and motivation. As Goodwin explains, “Lincoln knew firsthand the deprivations, the marginal livelihood of the subsistence farmer unable to bring produce to market without dependable roads. He had been paid the meagre wages of the hired hand. Primitive roads, clogged waterways, lack of rail connections, inadequate schools – such were not merely issues to Lincoln, but hurdles he had worked all his life to overcome in order to earn an ampler share of freedom.” [ii] He thus both experienced and believed that it was possible to move from such poverty to the presidential chair, and that everyone should have the opportunity to attain the place in life they desired.
Goodwin’s book is a fascinating exposition of not only Lincoln’s rise to power, but also of his leadership through the American Civil War, abolition of slavery, and his admirable ability to forge productive relationships for the greater good. That a man, with all the pressures of running a nation on his shoulders, can work compatibly with those who formerly opposed him, is a noble leadership quality indeed. With the responsibility of steering a nation through civil war, he was wise enough to reach out to his rivals and offer them the most senior roles in his administration. When Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune questioned Lincoln over his choice of Cabinet, Lincoln replied, “We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” [iii] A move that even the current American president, Barack Obama, emulated in placing Hilary Clinton in the role of Secretary of State upon becoming president.
Personally it was these leadership and relational abilities of Lincoln that stood out the most, my ‘take away’ as it were. Having taken a role of leadership and responsibility as a church planter for the first time, I’m encountering the challenges that come both with working closely with others who think and behave differently from you, and the high expectations that come from within your team. Indeed, I’m finding that it’s not the actual day-to-day leadership decisions that are the greatest challenge of starting a church and charity, but the actual dealing with colleagues and all their fears and needs. As a leader, I’m rapidly learning that one needs to exhibit high levels of grace, patience and selflessness, qualities that I see in Abraham Lincoln in vast measure.
I’m also encouraged by the fact that even though Lincoln was able to work side-by-side with former opponents, does not mean he always got things right. Lincoln’s choices were sometimes wrong, such as the choice of McClellan as Army General, who not only failed to successfully lead his troops into battle, but who even derided Lincoln. Yet despite getting things wrong on occasions, he learned to wisely manage these individuals and still show “malice toward none; with charity for all.” [iv] Lincoln teaches me that leadership is just not easy and demands a cost not only upon one’s time and effort, but also upon one’s heart.
Although Lincoln’s life was cruelly cut short, he achieved an ambition expressed decades earlier: “Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other [ambition] so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed.” [v] He succeeded more than he could have ever imagined.