The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years…He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
- Leo Tolstoy, The World, New York, 1909
In honor of President’s Day, I went and saw Steven Spielberg's great movie “Lincoln” this past weekend.
As it has for many, the movie exceeded my very high expectations for it.
The film's core narrative - President Lincoln's efforts to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through Congress before the end of the Civil war - offered a treasure trove of leadership wisdoms applicable to our modern day.
The movie paints a basic leadership dilemma in stark relief, namely what is the proper balance between morality and expediency?
Between "being right" and being effective, and to what degree do moral ends justify messy means?
Lincoln, through the leadership role into which he was uniquely thrust, probably grappled and suffered more publicly with this dilemma than any person in history.
Beset on all sides by the bitterest of adversaries - the incorrigible racists and States’ Rights advocates of the Southern and Border States on the one hand and the moral absolutists (combined with desire for revenge) of the Radical Republican North on the other - no matter what decision Lincoln made or action he took there would be a large, powerful, and vocal group vociferously opposed to it.
Adding monumentally and tragically to Lincoln's challenge was that so much of his power and decision making revolved around those most awful of choices - to send tens of thousands of young men into battle from which the almost certain outcome for very many of them would be death.
For anyone, the awesome responsibility of this kind of leadership is beyond overwhelming.
For a great soul like that of Lincoln's, it was tragic beyond our ability to possibly relate.
But it was also triumphant, and for any of us that strive to do great and moral things with our lives, there is no better role model.
First, Lincoln did not make his enemies "wrong."
Rather, he found that delicate and transcendental space whereby he was strong in decisions to prosecute that bloodiest of American wars harshly and vigorously, but while so doing found space in his heart and in his leadership directives to not deny the humanity nor the deserving of forgiveness of his enemies.
Secondly, he did not lead from "up on high," but rather with great vigor and charm appealed to the “better angels” of his adversaries to see things a bit different - more nobly and more charitably.
And finally, Lincoln recognized that even in the midst of a horrible war, that laughter is as much a part of living as are tears.
And thus, so often when a stern reprimand or harsh words would be the reaction of a lesser leader, Lincoln chose humor to make his point.
This is maybe Lincoln’s greatest lesson for modern leaders.
To stand and to work for great things, yes…
To forgive your adversaries, yes…
But, to do so not with a heaviness of heart or obligation of purpose but with a gentle and even mischievous lightness of being that makes the journey its own reward.
And when done with the dexterity and openhearted wisdom of an Abraham Lincoln, things not thought possible even to dream about come to pass.
Happy President’s Day.