What Abraham Lincoln Taught Us About Leadership

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” –Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address


I recently watched Directors Steven Speilberg’s latest film on President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln based off of historian Doris Kern Goodwin’s New York Times Best Seller Team of Rivals chronicles the final months of Lincoln’s life as he pushed to end The Civil War and pressure Congress to pass the 13th Amendment which would abolish slavery.

In order to fully appreciate Lincoln you need to have a sense of history. Today, integration in society is common. Our schools are integrated, businesses are integrated, and the President of the United States is African American. But only 150 years ago African Americans were considered property in half of the country and the thought of free African Americans with the same rights granted in the United States Constitution as Caucasians were threatening. Even in the “free North” African Americans faced prejudice because of the color of their skin. President Lincoln faced a country divided over slavery, a division that would lead to the bloodiest war in U.S. History, a war that would divide households and families and put brother against brother.


“…  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. It may seem strange that any men 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’”…


Lincoln faced pressure from some of his most trusted advisors and members of Congress to bring about an end to the war without ending slavery. Many had argued that the country was not ready to free and franchise African-Americans, but Lincoln refused to  push the matter off to future generations which brings me to the first lesson of leadership Lincoln taught us: 1) Leaders shape public opinion. Today we live in a “follow me society”, many of our actions, words, and thoughts are influenced by popular culture. Many of us tend to follow and not lead. If Lincoln was a follower he would have agreed to a peace plan with the South and allowed for the institution of slavery to persist. Lincoln did what was unpopular to many at the time, but he was the one who shaped public opinion and was not shaped by it.

The second lesson Lincoln taught us about leadership is: Leaders are persistent. Throughout the movie you can see how the war was affecting Lincoln. Lincoln, like all commander-in-chiefs during times of war was weary; every casualty weighed heavy on him and to make things more stressful his son, Robert, wanted badly to participate in the war. In the face of bloodshed and casualties Lincoln remained persistent to see the war end in a responsible manner that would heal the country and rid it of slavery forever!

The final lesson in leadership I think we can all learn from Lincoln is that leaders remain true to their values. Throughout the movie many questioned Lincoln’s resolve and leadership and wanted to know what he was willing to risk to end the war and free the slaves. Lincoln was willing to risk everything, his family, popularity, and life. Lincoln participated in backroom dealings and political arm twisting to get his way. He was willing to negotiate and talk to his enemies all while never compromising his values. Lincoln above everything else was a man that valued justice and equality.

Lincolnwas a great movie with many lessons throughout it, but the lessons about leadership really stuck out to me. There is a reason President Lincoln is one of the most studied and celebrated Americans. He was a smart, dedicated, and committed man seeking to re-unite the country all while experiencing personal grief in his own home. Through it all Lincoln remained firm and committed and we live in a better country because of it. See the movie!




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