Abraham Lincoln & Transformational Change: A Profile

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Nancy Koehn for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. In Forged in Crisis, she offers a brilliant discussion of five quite remarkable people, each of whom is indeed a courageous leader: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson.

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Lincoln had no silver bullets to save the Union. This was difficult to accept. But as the war stretched on, he began to understand that the complexity of the conflict and the magnitude of its stakes made a single, clear-cut way to end it virtually impossible.

This is an insight for today’s leaders. We are under pressure to move fast, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and make a big impact. But the reality of trying to accomplish something real and good gives lie to the seductive notion that there is one simple solution. Almost anything along our life journeys that is worth investing in, worth fighting for, and worth summoning our best selves for has no silver bullet. The bigger the issue, the less likely it is that a leader can resolve it in one or two swift strokes. Understanding this means abandoning the quest for the single definitive answer. Letting go of this quest frees leaders—emotionally and practically—to focus on the many possible approaches and actions needed to make a meaningful difference.

In the aftermath of the battle at Gettysburg, appalled by the human carnage, many Northerners thought the government should stop fighting and seek a settlement with the rebel states, one that recognized the legality of slavery. Against this backdrop, in mid-1863, Lincoln accepted an invitation from his old friend James Conkling to address a large meeting of Union supporters in Springfield, Illinois. As the speech grew closer, pressing responsibilities prevented the president from leaving Washington. So instead of returning to his hometown, he wrote a letter for Conkling to present at the gathering.

The letter, which was published in newspapers across the country, laid out the principal arguments of the peace faction and Lincoln’s careful response to these. Looking back, we can see that Lincoln was doing more than making the case for his policies. As any serious leader engaged in large-scale change must, he was also trying to keep the relevant lines of communication open. He understood that widespread transformation always unleashes waves of collective fear, discontent, and doubt—emotions that often translate into vocal, and potentially more destructive, opposition. He also knew that if left unacknowledged, adversaries have the power to derail even the worthiest attempts at reform, and thus it is a leader’s responsibility to identify and, when necessary, neutralize his or her most powerful critics.

But how is the person at the center of the change to do this without appearing weak, creating additional enemies, or potentially legitimating the very attacks he or she is trying to mitigate? These are complicated issues, so it is not surprising that leaders often avoid head-on engagement with their challengers, hoping instead that the rallying cry of the mission and the enthusiasm of supporters will overwhelm naysayers.

This is a risky strategy, especially when the stakes are high. It was to Lincoln’s credit that he understood the power of Northern elites, who did not want to fight a war to end slavery. The president also realized that to defuse this “fire in the rear,” he had to speak directly to the American public, and he had to do this by addressing the specific arguments his opponents were making against him. Finally, he had to explain his actions in terms of his larger purpose. Lincoln did all of this in the speech for James Conkling. Seen from the perspective of a change leader effectively communicating with relevant stakeholders and trying to alleviate serious threats to the broader transformation, the president’s letter was a tour de force.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Nancy Koehn is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. This article is adapted from her book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Koehn. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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