Learning from Gettysburg and Lincoln

Historians have said that the turning point in the American Civil War occurred on July 1-3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.  As we mark the 150th anniversary of that battle and approach the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (delivered on November 19, 1863), it is appropriate to reflect on the leadership qualities that sustain confidence in such difficult situations. President Lincoln is widely praised for possessing excellent leadership skills. Which were the most critical of those skills?

Many years ago I read a newspaper column on Lincoln’s leadership qualities. I don’t remember who wrote the column or the newspaper it was in, but I remember that it suggested four qualities displayed by Lincoln that were virtues of leadership:  (1) Lincoln was said to emphasize persuading people instead of coercing them; (2) he was reputed never to make decisions based on spite or vindictiveness; (3) his style was to get out among the troops; and (4) Lincoln showed compassion.  I remember the qualities because they seemed sensible and appropriate. I repeat them here with acknowledgement that they were distilled and written by someone else – and apply them to the business school context. To the extent that we display these qualities, we will enhance our skills and become stronger leaders.

Persuade Rather Than Coerce:  Persuasion is an important skill – so much so that many books have been written on how to persuade more effectively. By convincing people to accept your point, come to your side, or agree with what you are saying, a leader is able to align and combine resources in pursuit of desired outcomes. Persuasion requires communication as well as an understanding of the individuals whom you seek to persuade. Persuasion is difficult because it requires others to accept voluntarily a view or perspective and efforts to persuade are not guaranteed to be successful.

Because persuasion may not succeed, people in power sometimes choose to coerce individuals or impose on them to ensure they perform the desired outcome. Coercion is usually the product of power and it works because it generates concerns or fears regarding what might happen to those who do not go along.  There is no doubt that coercion can work, but it often generates cynicism and creates potential for backlash. For example, if cynical members of the organization are looking to show up the leader at any opportunity, coercive approaches have the potential of winning the battle and losing the war. Furthermore, coercion can fuel a culture in which all members of the organization wait their turn to force others to adhere to their view. Because persuasion requires a leader to persuade, it promotes a strong culture of discussion and open dialogue. The culture is virtuous and promotes support and action. A predisposition towards persuasion serves all business leaders well.

Never Decide Out of Spite or Vindictiveness:  The reasons for decisions are often as important as the decisions.  When leaders make decisions out of spite or to punish people, it fuels the coercive elements of an organization. Such decisions demonstrate the leader’s power unwisely. In particular, members of the organization will often respond by closely managing what they report to the leader, which reduces the flow of information and increases the variability in its accuracy.

The underlying idea is that decisions must be justified. While organization members need not be in agreement with the decision, they should be aware of why it was made. In instances in which the decision was in the interest of the organization, people will accept the leader’s judgment.  Conversely, by allowing personal motivations to determine decisions, leaders encourage everyone to put their interests ahead of the organization’s. That facilitates an erosion of principle and an eye for an eye mentality, which does not serve the long run interest of the organization.

It is important that decisions be communicated effectively. Justifications may need to be provided in instances of widespread disagreement.  Absent communication, people in the organization will draw their own conclusions on the reason for and necessity of decisions.

Manage by Walking Around:  For Lincoln, the notion of getting out among the troops was literal.  He needed to visit his generals and see battlefields to understand the course the Civil War was taking.  Such action creates opportunities for informal communication and interaction, in which people can take the measure of each other. In most organizations, getting out among the troops is an admonition to interact with people informally, to have multiple points of contact, and to have personal contact with the individuals who are pursuing the basic mission of the organization. Being isolated in the tower can facilitate strategy but the strategy may not be effective if it is informed by incorrect notions and views. Getting out among the troops means getting a real sense of what is happening. Organizational leaders need to understand the situations faced by all the entity’s constituencies.

Show Compassion:  Many people assume that compassion is a sign of weakness – unless it is offered in return for a specific favor. In organizations, leaders sometimes conclude that they must take on every challenge and demonstrate dominance in the way that animals do in the wild kingdom. The old adage that people who live by the sword die by the sword is a warning that leadership by dominance does not create long term stability. Even in a tribal setting, leadership that fails to provide for the future is a failure. Compassion is valuable because it demonstrates that individuals can be forgiven in situations.  It reveals vulnerability and as such connects a leader with everyone else in the organization. While repeated violations or problems require solution, learning is facilitated when individuals have an opportunity to profit from a mistake. Compassion also demonstrates a leader’s strength, as he or she does not need to eliminate the naïve or inexperienced. It allows learning to take place and that in turn aids the organization in the long run.

In The Prince, Machiavelli suggests that it is better to be feared than loved if one cannot be both. While this may cause followers to do as they promised, the leader will be undermined if the fear turns into hatred. Compassion shows love and thus may be confused with weakness. It takes a strong leader to be compassionate. And strong leaders must hold followers accountable.

We all benefit from following the four leadership principles attributed to Lincoln. While simple to describe, they are difficult to execute consistently. In particular, leaders can be distracted by the work at hand. This makes it difficult to make time to get out among the troops and reduces patience for the time it takes to persuade people. Under pressure it is easier to employ coercion and to be vindictive. Concern for showing weakness can lead to deliberate decisions not to be compassionate. Pressure causes people to move in a direction different from the leadership attributes.

In time we are all tested. As leaders we will then follow the approach that seems most sensible, though we must recognize that our view is affected by our position as the leader. Thus, the final point to keep in mind is the need to become aware of these matters early on and give thought to how you might respond when the future of the organization is on the line. Admittedly, we cannot direct all critical decisions to follow our timeline. But we can prepare for situations by engaging a strategic plan and by practicing our tactics. The Katz School and CBA emphasize experience based learning (EBL) precisely because we believe students need to practice regularly so they are ready for whatever their career throws at them. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg offers a good time for us to reflect on the challenges that we all inevitably will face.




3 thoughts on “Learning from Gettysburg and Lincoln

  1. I hope that the Katz School has integrated these principles into its programs. In my 39 years in business and management, too often these principles were not comprehended even remotely. There are distinct differences between management and leadership also. MBA programs have difficulty teaching leadership in a class room. New graduates have a huge challenge in finding positions that offer opportunities for personal experience and growth in both of these areas. Whether you are leading the team or are part of the team, the culture in your organization and the degree to which these Lincoln principles (plus others that are similar) are embraced will have a lot to do with the success of the business and the success and satisfaction of the team.

  2. A very thoughtful and well reasoned post. In many ways, Lincoln’s principles are evergreen when it comes to comprehending leadership. The toughest aspect of this seems to be integrating masses with respect to a single vision. He did this with elan. While academic brilliance and integrity should be the focus of a business studies professor and student, these softer points must never be lost sight of. It would be a continual challenge for me as a PhD student at Katz to make them part and parcel of my professional and personal life.

  3. Stated very well. As it is never best way that coersion be the right way to get things accomplished. Managing over subordinates fear is being ruthless while thinking you are not being rude. Positions of hierarchy are to be respected – and NOT feared. Weak people (with Napolean disease) have such leadership styles, for they have found their niche to bark loud.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.