Last year I enjoyed reading Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln. Last night I got to see the movie, Lincoln, based on the book, and the brilliance and leadership of our greatest president is still running through my mind.
Undoubtedly, there will be many angles that critics and viewers will take on the movie as a screenplay. For me, it was extremely helpful to have had the background information on the politics and people of the time. It provided rich context for where people’s motives and passions were. The film did a remarkable job of focusing the tension of the times. Lincoln was the mastermind and captain of the American experiment. It made me feel both grateful and in awe of the society I have benefitted from because of the determination, wisdom and grit of this remarkable man.
In one scene in the movie, he asks a couple of young engineers whether they believed people were born and fitted to their times or was it purely coincidental. The movie made the point. He was fitted for his time.
There were so many dialogues and heated scenes of rhetoric in the movie which were extremely rich to take in at times. Each had a display shining the light on leadership. As I think about these historical engagements, I had these thoughts on leadership from Lincoln:
- Thinking too high or too low can cloud our vision. Lincoln had a compass on where he wanted to head by passing the thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery in the United States. He mentions the analogy of a compass with Thaddeus Stevens in a key conversation in the movie and its importance of telling us where we need to head. However, Lincoln was calibrated to reality and understood that direction alone was only one tool. Ignoring or not accounting for the obstacles along the way can make a person merely idealistic without effectiveness. The same was true of his cabinet and Washington’s politicians that were mired in the obstacles. They lost site of the greater vision. Lincoln was able to see clearly and help people to calibrate their distractions towards the goal at hand.
- Understand the times. Lincoln understood he was a mortal and would die. He wanted to do something great in his life and feared he would never have the opportunity. However, when time and circumstance pushed onto him, he embraced the historical nature of his time. Most of the people around him did not have this context. They became more aware as Lincoln shrewdly maneuvered the political pieces to force the issue of his time onto the stage of history and the conscience of Americans. Slavery was abolished because he made himself and everyone around him deal with themselves and their place in history.
- Understand timing. The Greeks have two words for time: kairos – critical time – and chronos – mundane or regular time. Most of our existence is in the latter. Lincoln was working in a kairos time. The need to inject the thirteenth amendment at the perceived risk of his popularity took great courage and a plumb line to what the time demanded. It was the nail in the coffin to clarify and finalize the bitter conflict between the North and South. He accelerated the pace because the timing was right. At other times, he showed great restraint and patience with people to allow them the freedom to come to their own conclusions. He was not forceful. He was truthful and kept his focus on the goal. Lincoln showed there were times to go fast and times to wait. The wisdom to throttle between speed and deliberation is a large part of getting results.
- Life is messy. For those people who do not compromise or seem to get mired in idealism, Lincoln’s mind was always based in reality. He demanded his cabinet to focus on what was before them now, not the myriad possibilities of what could happen. He did not shoulder that artificial burden of what he could not control. He embraced what life demanded of him now and called people to deal with the present. Such perspective is liberating and created immense clarity for people to think about where they stood now. Dealing with people is extremely messy business with all of the motivations, intentions and shrewd dealings of the heart. Lincoln did not insist on reality to be different. He understood life is difficult and messy and engaged the ugliness with magnanimity.
- Show grace. There are so many scenes where people experienced the greatness of Lincoln. He was humble and you could change his mind if you could persuade him logically. He was principled but not dogmatic to the point of folly. In his second term’s inauguration address with reconstruction as the focal point, Lincoln wanted the country to heal and show “malice towards none.” He was not vindictive, but rather compassionate. He could understand the other person’s point of view. People that knew him or encountered him sensed this and felt his honesty and integrity.
I plan on watching the movie again. There are so many rich scenes that are life lessons. There is also a thread of consistency about Lincoln that runs through his life. Leadership changes the world. It always has. Lincoln showed us how he was fitted for his time and operates from a dual persona of being magnanimous and shrewd.
I want to continue learning these lessons and be fit for my times, whatever they may be. How great it is to have had an embodiment of truth, love and courage in our own American heritage.
If you get to watch the film, I would love to hear your thoughts.