Lessons in Leadership and Civility from Lincoln


I was flipping through the television channels last week, and I came across Ken Burns’s last episode of his Civil War documentary. It is such a highly regarded series and one in which I hope to see from beginning to end someday. I have always been fascinated by the Civil War, and, like so many Americans, I am a very big admirer of Abraham Lincoln. This was the episode that covered the events of Lincoln’s assassination and the tremendous mourning the country went through during the long train ride carrying his body to his final resting spot in Springfield, IL. He was a remarkable man, and his loss devastated the country. I could feel the tangibility of the loss, and it was 100 years before I was born.

I had already been in a Lincoln frame of mind after having recently visited Gettysburg. Lincoln’s most famous speech is considered to be the Gettysburg Address, which becomes understandable when one spends some quality time reading and analyzing it. His second most famous oration is the second inaugural address he gave on March 4, 1865. This was only 36 days before General Lee formally surrendered at Appomattox and 41 days prior to Lincoln being shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. The two events were not unrelated.  Booth was stewing in anger about the defeat of the South and drinking heavily, and he wanted to take his rage out on Lincoln, as well as the Vice President and Secretary of State.

Lincoln Leadership Lessons

I think the speech is important not only for every American to read but for every student of great leadership and for those who aspire to be leaders themselves. It embodies so many of the characteristics of great leaders. These are just some of the most important ones I drew from the speech and you probably have more to add to the list after reading it yourself. They include:

  • Humility
  • Optimistic yet realistic
  • Purpose-driven
  • Honest
  • Empathetic
  • Personal without making it personal
  • Adaptive
  • Able to lay out a compelling vision for the future
  • They deal with very difficult issues head-on
  • Tell people why and the context
  • Tenacious
  • Honoring the office
  • Not taking advantage of one’s position of power
  • Precise in one’s language
  • Gracious in victory and not vindictive
  • Playing a bigger game
  • Long-term oriented

I wanted to take the opportunity to go through the relatively short speech, especially by today’s standards, and analyze it from my perspective as an investor and someone who respects talented leadership skills. I will comment after each major part to convey what I find most important and the leadership lessons I get from it.


Gary: He is already showing he is one of them. Great leaders make their followers feel like they are understood, and Lincoln starts right off by addressing his constituents and himself as Americans.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest, which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

Gary: The country is tired. Lincoln is tired. What he spoke about the first time was a different time and place. He will not waste the American people’s time rehashing the past. People want to know what lies in store now that the war is concluding. The carnage has been horrible, and the wounds are so difficult to heal. Leaders know that nothing stays permanent, the context can change, and one must adapt to new realities, attitudes, hopes, and fears. It’s obvious to everyone that the North will win and the union will be preserved. It’s time to move on and look ahead.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it. All sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

Gary: I love how impersonal this section is and how he does not overtly assign blame to the South or create a halo over the North. He dispassionately describes the situation prior to the war and, despite both parties not wanting war, clearly, delineates the positions of the two parties without naming them. His overriding purpose is to lay the groundwork for healing, so naming names are to be avoided because that detracts from his purpose. He is a purpose-driven leader, and this enables him to have a great tenacity to see that purpose through to the end and to not let emotions or posturing get in the way of his grand plan to restore the union and heal the country. The type of tone and language is so different than the terrible partisan discourse that we have going on today. Imagine the Democrats and Republicans speaking about themselves and the other party in a detached way so as to put the arguments and positions on an intellectual, thoughtful, and impersonal plane versus making them so strident, emotional, facts ignored, and partisan, like how it is today. It’s all about positioning and dehumanizing the other side and shoot the messenger syndrome. It has nothing to do with what is right for the country and sound, fact-based arguments.  Jamie Dimon is right when he says “it’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

Gary: Lincoln minces no words in assigning the cause of the war to slavery. True leaders tell it like it is. Great leaders have tremendous clarity and block out noise and distraction. This was about slavery, and it was a zero-sum game. There would only be one winner. Despite the magnitude of what was at stake, Lincoln continued with his dispassionate characterizations of both sides, their objectives, expectations, and beliefs.

It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Gary: Some people are not comfortable with leaders discussing their faith. I personally like it provided they do not do so in a proselytizing way. I like when leaders inform us as to how their faith influences how they see the world, treat other people, and help guide their lives. Lincoln’s faith comes through loud and clear here in this powerful passage. His faith teaches him to withhold judgment which helps position himself as one of the ideal people to lead the nation to help it heal. And yet, he knew that he would never back down when it came to fighting the war so that slavery would be destroyed and the union restored. He said that the prayers of both sides could not be answered. These were 100% irreconcilable positions. And, as I stated above,  it truly was zero-sum. For one to win, the other had to lose. This war was of biblical proportions. The Bible is filled with stories of horrible bloodshed and terrible destruction so that a greater good could come about so that the righteous could overcome the immoral and destructive. Lincoln knew this and was willing to have the nation endure horrific sacrifices for the greater long-term good. This is where I strongly encourage you to read the Gettysburg Address to hear how succinctly he articulated why the nation had to “engage in a great civil war.” Without question, the country is better off for Lincoln having been relentless in his determination to win the war so that slavery could be eradicated and the union restored.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Gary: Without a doubt, this is the most famous passage in the address and one for which Lincoln will be remembered in perpetuity. What’s done is done. The past is behind us. We have to move on, and we will do so not only in the least vindictive way we can but with charity extended to the defeated. And at the same time, do not mistake our open minds and hearts as reflective of any feelings of guilt on our part. On the contrary, we knew we were in the right. We didn’t want this war. Slavery was immoral, the preservation of the union was paramount, and we were doing God’s work. Lincoln chose to not extract revenge and a huge cost from the South by exploiting the power of the North. Once again, his overriding goal was the rebuilding of the union and the healing of the nation, which required forgiveness, charity, and looking forward and not backward.

Whenever you want to demonize someone or a group of people or the other political party, I encourage you to try to reframe the conversation into a much more impersonal approach like Lincoln did so brilliantly in his Second Inaugural Address. You will probably find that you can think more clearly about the issues, perhaps have some empathy for the other side, and do your small part to improving civil discourse.

One of the great contributions we can make to our society and democracy is civility.Click To Tweet

One of the great contributions we can make to our society and democracy is civility. That is why reading this address should be required of every individual in this country beginning at a very young age. I encourage every parent reading this to have their children read it and help them contrast it with what is heard on television and social media and ask them which do they think is more civil and humane and how they would prefer to be treated. Lincoln’s way or the ways of the bullies in politics, partisan television, and social media? I know my answer.

Over to You:

As I’ve said, I know my answer. What’s yours?

One comment on “Lessons in Leadership and Civility from Lincoln
  1. Susan Rayshell says:

    Excellent analysis of Lincoln’s speech, Gary. At a time when hatred seems to be en vogue, you do well to remind us all that true leadership that looks first and foremost to civility and healing is what this nation, indeed this world, needs most.

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