Like so many Americans, I have seen Abraham Lincoln as an icon of American culture, a hero, and a monumental personality who acted on history in ways that few individuals ever have. But Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln helped me take a deeper look into the nature of Lincoln’s leadership, and I am more impressed than ever with what he accomplished.
And by the way, it’s just a terrific movie, if you’re willing to watch a movie that doesn’t have much in the way of car chases or décolletage.
Abraham Lincoln drove himself like a stake into the ground and tied the country to that stake when everyone and everything was threatening to spin away into chaos. He compromised when he had to and he held firm when it was absolutely necessary. He pleaded, cajoled, told stories, cut backroom deals, listened patiently, spoke from the heart, and kept his humanity firmly intact in the most difficult of circumstances. In short, he led in an extraordinary way and we are lucky he did.
I’ve heard some say that he was, well, a politician, that he compromised too much, that he bent the rules and didn’t stand up enough to the people he disagreed with. There is a sense among some observers that he wasn’t so much a man of principle as a man of convenience — that he gave away too much and was too willing to deal with people who didn’t deserve his attentions.
But if you are a leader in any sense, you are a politician. You work the system to get things done. You know who carries power, or who’s likely to support your ideas and who’s not likely to. You spend time sanding off the rough edges of conflict, and yes, you cut a deal or two. And motivating you in these efforts are the best interests of the business and the desire to accomplish something meaningful and lasting.
People like Lincoln, in the end, are far more effective than the ideologues living among us. These people recognize that in a highly imperfect world replete with one-issue voters, moral prudes, and black and white thinkers, the skillful political deal-maker guided by the long-term best interest of the enterprise is an essential player in the affairs of governments and organizations of all sizes.