There is no doubt in my mind that President Lincoln was an inspiring, transformational leader who infused people’s lives with a sense of purpose and meaning; no mean feat. And so I was naturally drawn to the title ‘Lincoln and the Art of Transformative Leadership’ in the Sept/Oct Harvard Business Review.
The article is an extract from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. In it she highlights the skills and strengths that enabled Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and guide it to fruition in 1862, during the protracted misery of the US Civil War. She draws together a list of compelling themes for Transformative Leadership, emerging from one of the most turbulent and significant times in US history.
So how did he do it? … well, the article first cites Lincoln’s “resilience as his keystone strength” and that he possessed a “powerful emotional intelligence”. And then focusses on a series of seemingly opposite traits that would challenge most of us, which he managed as polarities to be balanced rather than problems to solve: to be merciful and merciless; confident and humble; patient and persistent; to mediate and at the same time stay true to a cause.
She goes on to say that he “displayed an extraordinary ability to absorb the conflicting wills of a divided people and reflect back to them an unbending faith in a unified future”.
Here’s a summary of those themes: –
- Acknowledge and call out when change is required
- Anticipate and invite contending viewpoints
- Build diversity of thought into teams
- Know when to hold back, and move forward
- Set an example with compassion, self-awareness and humility
- Understand the emotional needs of your team – praise, recognise and give your time
- Refuse to let past resentments fester
- Control angry impulses
- Protect colleagues from blame
- Win over your sceptics
- Keep your word
- Gauge sentiment and work with it
- Establish trust
When each of these behaviours and traits are exercised in the context of the times, it’s all the more remarkable and no surprise that we can look back on Lincoln as a transformational leader. Nothing new you say? Well, I think it is, because when times get tough, do we as leaders think of making it harder for ourselves? – maybe not. It took courage to make the Emancipation Proclamation when the country was in the middle of a civil war, “a purpose that required the support of the cabinet, the army and ultimately, the American people”. Kearns Goodwin goes on to say “following Lincoln’s lead, an overwhelming majority of soldiers came to view emancipation and the restoration of the Union as inseparably linked”. And in doing so, changed the course of history.
What lessons can we learn from this? How might we make it just a little harder for ourselves and become truly transformational for our businesses and our people? Is it perhaps about embracing the dualities of seemingly conflicting issues and finding that sweet spot in the middle?
I have not had time here to do the article justice, it’s a great read so take a look, if you can, at your next coffee break!