The writer shares an excerpt on Abraham Lincoln’s moral leadership that will complement the content of the writer’s forthcoming book, The Power of Moral Leadership: A Guide to Increasing Your Influence, Emotional Intelligence & Inner Peace.
Historians are in remarkable agreement that no American leader demonstrated more moral clarity and courage in leadership, with such profound consequences for our nation, as did Abraham Lincoln. In honor of his birthday here are some thoughts on Lincoln and leadership from my forthcoming book.
Abraham Lincoln was “a man of incorruptible integrity,” wrote Civil War general Carl Schurz. “He was so modest by nature that he was perfectly content to walk behind any man who wished to walk before him. I do not know that history has made a record of any other man who so habitually, so constitutionally, did to others as he would have them do to him.”
“Any casual reader of Lincoln has to be struck by the consistency with which every argument, however technical or legal, or economic, took on moral dimension as well,” wrote Lincoln scholar Stewart Winger.
Fellow attorney Samuel Parks wrote of him that “He was not only morally honest but intellectually so – he could not reason falsely.” Lincoln could not reason falsely because through long practice his rational and emotional dimensions were trained to be subordinate to his higher moral dimension, so that moral clarity became an unconscious and natural habit with him, just as it can with us.
Perhaps no statement of Lincoln highlights his clarity about integrity, and differentiates his understanding and practice of it, than when in an 1846 letter he wrote, “I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.”
How do our moral standards compare with Lincoln’s? How many of us believe that saying the truth accidentally is no better than lying? Better yet, how many of us understand the profound erosion of our character and influence that occurs when we say anything to advance ourselves, or appease others, that we do not believe to be true with absolute conviction.
If we paid attention to each word and action as Lincoln did, we would actually feel ourselves grow psychologically weaker with every insincere word or action in conflict with our moral compass, as well as feel ourselves becoming stronger with each word or action of integrity. We are blessed to have this marvelous early warning system for our moral and psychological health, but how much do we use it?
It was this unwavering commitment to the highest standards of moral leadership and integrity that enabled Lincoln to have such clarity in thought and decisions on the then contentious issues of slavery and succession. In no statement was Lincoln’s integrity and commitment to the Golden Rule more unequivocal or compelling than when he wrote, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
My favorite example of the leadership power of Lincoln’s high moral standards occurred on April 10, 1865, just four days before his death. A crowd of about 3,000 had gathered outside of the White House, hoping to hear some rousing words of victory and celebration from the President after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Certainly, from an emotional perspective, one could understand how Lincoln could have reveled in the moment and given a rousing victory speech. At the least, from a rational perspective, he should have politically reinforced how his leadership had brought the country through its greatest crisis.
But Lincoln did neither. Instead, he gave a special request to the Marine band: “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.” In what the President could have understandably perceived as an insignificant moment, after so many crucial decisions during the war, his emotional and rational dimensions were still naturally subordinate to his moral compass due to the uncompromising training of his mind.
He not only recognized instantly that his leadership role needed to shift dramatically from winning a war to uniting a divided nation, but how the smallest of decisions could either contribute to or detract from that noble effort. Remarkably, he required no meditation break, no extra time to weigh his options, nor did he feel the need to consult with advisors before immediately and naturally making this profoundly insightful decision.
Not only did he refrain from a primarily emotional or rational reaction, but at a time when others eagerly expected him to take center stage and full credit, he quickly removed himself entirely from the scene.
Lincoln taught us that moral leadership, and the great influence it produces, comes only from the refusal to compromise the Golden Rule or our integrity in even the “smallest” of decisions. It was this discipline that exercised and strengthened his moral clarity and courage, until it became second nature and effortless for him, as it can for us also.
When that occurs, like Lincoln we can:
- Instantly and unconsciously produce moral clarity in the most challenging and complex situations.
- Increase the speed, agility and quality of our decision-making and critical thinking abilities by creating cerebral “free space” that guilt, stress and neural storms would otherwise occupy from continually trying to justify our past moral violations.
- Create healthy and positive emotions naturally from moral thoughts and actions. Eliminate the self-inflicted burden of the toxic emotions of bitterness, resentment and shame that we create when we blame others for our own choices. Continually reduce the need to reactively “manage” our emotions.
- Be consistently present and mindful with others rather than constantly reliving a past full of regrets or being distracted and stressed by current dilemmas.
- Touch and engage the trust, respect, loyalty, commitment and discretionary effort found only in the spiritual, higher dimension of others. There is no shortage of these qualities within the human heart today, but there is a shortage of leaders with the moral clarity and courage required to reach and engage these deeper qualities.
The depth and breadth of leadership influence created by Lincoln’s moral integrity was well described by a correspondent of the Chicago Tribune after meeting with Lincoln in September, 1858: “…let a jury be empaneled from any part of our popular country, to try a cause, and they will take his exposition of the law and the facts of a case without a scruple; for they know that as Lincoln has never misconstrued the law, nor perverted the evidence…they can follow him and do no wrong. And when a man brings that kind of a reputation, his power with the people is almost omnipotent.”
All of us in search of greater influence, contribution and inner peace would do well to think deeply on Lincoln’s example and raise our moral clarity and courage to higher ground. Then, as with Abraham Lincoln, no epitaph will be needed to honor our legacy, for it will be written indelibly on the hearts of others.
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