Two Lincoln Lessons this Presidents Day

From the impeachment trial in Washington to the scandal in New York State, we continue to struggle to find solid examples of upstanding, intentional leadership. These are desperate days. We need leaders marked by thoughtful integrity, thorough goodness, and hearts deliberately set on genuinely serving others.

With so much bad news lately, I have forced myself to reflect, to search and ponder some potential good news this Presidents Day. I find myself aiming to recall more positive lessons from past leaders.

Let’s revisit two lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, insights that emerge even amidst desperately negative circumstances.

Lincoln leveraged solid self-awareness of his own dark side.

His contemporaries—those people around him during early political days as well as those surrounding his presidency—all knew his capacity to convey a glum, weighted down demeanor. He would often retreat on his own with a furrowed brow in order to puzzle over problems or brood on dilemmas. He was known for projecting heaviness and a somber tone, so much that some historians have labeled Lincoln’s malaise as depression. However, Doris Kearns Goodwin has aptly deduced his outlook as melancholy instead.[1]

And here’s what’s remarkable: Lincoln knew this dismal personal penchant. He also knew how to leverage his melancholy for the greater good. Lincoln did two things in light of such self-awareness. First, he told stories, often humorous, witty ones. In such story crafting, he was typically successful at lifting his own spirit as well as the tone and overall outlook of those whom he was leading.

Second, he allowed his melancholy outlook to fuel deeper empathy. Historians recognize that much of Lincoln’s political success came via his uncanny ability to identify with the hurts and needs of his constituents. Having deeply pondered and felt their pain, he could then plan and plot a stronger platform of service.

Lincoln was also skillful at leveraging his melancholy in order to anticipate his political opponent’s next move. Sometimes he would do this well in advance of the other party’s action and the resulting public news. Such self-awareness and skillful ability to leverage his melancholy mood for the greater good proved marvelously helpful. Lincoln actually strengthened his leadership influence with intentional use of his known tendency.

Lincoln built his cabinet largely from a list of rivals.

So many present-day leaders are prone to assembling their teams and boards only from individuals with whom they fully agree. Leaders tend to gather those who are readily “yes people,” others who are not likely to give them push-back or express alternate views. It’s remarkable to realize, President-elect Lincoln very intentionally assembled his team out of those who had already expressed differences of opinion, run against him, and even some who had openly expressed opposition to his key platforms and agenda. Lincoln saw such diversity as essential, healthy, and empowering toward genuine progress and productive outcomes during those difficult days.

I am deeply grateful for these two Lincoln insights. I long to see them employed by more of our current leaders in Washington as well as influencers in vital business arenas. And I am also stirred and equally eager to utilize them myself in my own realms of church and community leadership in the days ahead.

Let’s learn from Lincoln! Happy Presidents Day!  


[1]Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2005.  

What if we fail to make America great again?

I am deeply saddened for my three sons as they launch into adulthood. When I was their age, we still had numerous politicians—including presidential candidates—who engaged their tasks with a solid sense of genuine greatness. They were in no way perfect, but they sincerely viewed themselves as public servants. Theirs was greatness born of common grace goodness, including core character competencies essential to lead well. Alas today, I am increasingly vexed over the lack of such leaders. Too few possess those qualities necessary for a nation’s greater good and that nation’s ripple of good influence. I long for such leaders for my sons and future generations. Before you label me nostalgic or grumpy, please indulge my musing.

Disgrace of impeachment proceedings

Disturbing. Disgraceful. Discouraging. Amid blasts of mounting accusations and fuming vitriol from either side, I find myself using all three words to describe the current landscape of US politics and public sentiment. This past weekend, major rallies and policy-sharing events were held by both Republicans and Democrats. Those events revealed extremely troubling views, misguided agendas, and more all-out ugliness.

Gene Edward Veith urges us: “The Christian’s involvement with and responsibility to the culture in which God has placed him is part of his calling. Human societies also require governments, formal laws, and governing authorities. Filling these offices of earthly authority is indeed a worthy vocation for the Christian . . . ”[1] Now more than ever, we need people who genuinely show up, pray up, speak up, and step up. But how might we engage in a way that brings something different to the already disruptive equation?

Amidst today’s political turmoil, we all feel dissed. But there’s a much bigger brand of dis to blame. Pelosi and her peeps are guilty of it. Trump is egregiously guilty, including his evangelical leader cronies. In reality, we are all outrageously guilty of this particular ugly one.

It’s called dis-integration.

And it’s especially tricky. Here’s what happens when people say, “My faith is important, but I don’t need to mix that too much with political work. I can and should keep my church life and spirituality separate from my political views and actions.” Many people today bring this attitude: “It’s not spiritual; it’s just political.” Such outlook is a kissing cousin to “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”

Can integration really happen?

Overcoming dis-integration is not only a Red vs. Blue issue. It runs much deeper. At the core, it is about reclaiming the grace of serving fellow humans, both nearby and round the globe. Its roots are found in Genesis 2:15, where God purposed for humans to work in his Garden. In other places in Scripture, this ancient word for work is also translated as serve. God’s unfolding biblical story reveals a handful of characters who served in government in amazingly integrated, service-oriented ways. The likes of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel demonstrate how God’s people can be vibrantly involved in the work of politics and public service.[2]

One party trumpets the MAGA slogan, but both the Elephant and the Donkey want to see America great again. They just seriously disagree about what the nuanced outcomes entail. Sadly, for both parties, greatness means some version of sassy rhetoric, fat-cat wealth, savvy power bases, and the firepower to successfully obliterate whomever they deem the enemy. Precise applications of such supposed greatness are what’s up for debate. This prescriptive understanding of greatness—both greatness of individual leaders and what greatness should look like for a collective people—is painfully flawed. It’s true on either side of the aisle. I feel sickened and saddened by such a despicable description of greatness.

Jesus supplied a deeply different understanding. He taught his disciples that true greatness means learning to humbly serve others (Mark 9:33-35) based on holistic, integrated love (Matthew 22:34-40). I know, this probably sounds like a pie-in-the-sky platitude, a hearkening back to Mayberry or Walton’s Mountain. But Jesus said it. Greatness is born of humble service. Will we believe him and work like that’s true in our own everyday vocations—including political and governmental responsibilities? In his book The Integrated Life, Ken Eldred argues for people to live all of life—especially their everyday work—fully informed and integrated with their faith. That means great leaders humbly serve others.[3]

Greater guiding questions

Aiming to pull out of my sadness, I try to envision what true greatness might look like for my sons and so many others for future years. True greatness would look like a fuller integration of our faith in the public sphere, an integration that impacts not just our nation but the globe. Such integration must involve once again the twin concepts of character and service. Too many good people are allowing their own hunger for political power and economic comfort to control their allegiances, their choices, and their votes.

Why do we continue to defend leaders whose words are persistently malicious, whose moral choices are corrupt, and whose practices are ripe with deception? How long will we ridiculously look the other way when leaders are obviously corrupt through and through? Why do we continue coddling all sorts of vices just because a candidate supports our own favorite view related to abortion, or race, or healthcare, or immigration, or some other singular, deeply held issue? Too many of us pledge our allegiance based on myopic tunnel vision.

Character matters. Good character means being trustworthy, full of integrity. Good character matters because telling the truth matters. Leaders must be willing to tell the truth, first to themselves about themselves. Truth be told, we are not always good leaders, both at our core and in our actions. During a political campaign early in his career, Abraham Lincoln noted:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.[4]

Note Lincoln’s great ambition. He realized that in order to be truly esteemed by fellow men, he needed to render himself worthy of that esteem. There was no sense of entitlement. In Lincoln’s leadership framework, self-rendering was essential to a sincerely great ambition.

O that we had more leaders today willing to tell themselves the truth and “render” themselves. Lincoln was relentless in self-examination, working on personal change—even altering his viewpoints and platforms when necessary. Then he avidly pursued active, hands-on service to others. Being a deeply, truly kind leader truly matters. I long for such leaders in public service today.

I wonder what would happen if more of our politicians—and especially the ones aspiring to be President—would ask this two-part, formative question every day when they wake up:

What sort of person should I be—in light of King Jesus—and what actions should I take in order to actually bless the people I serve, to intentionally create greater flourishing?

I hope we fail. I hope we fail miserably at the current crazed attempts to make and keep America great again. And may that failure open the way for us to understand a truer, kinder, stronger greatness. O that such greatness would be born of good character and genuine service on behalf of others.

 

[1]Gene Edward Veith Jr. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, 101.

[2]For a winsome analysis of Joseph’s integration, see Albert M. Erisman’s book The Accidental Executive.

[3]Ken Eldred, The Integrated Life.

[4]Doris Kearns Goodwin. Leadership in Turbulent Times, 1-20.