Abraham Lincoln & Willpower: 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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As the summer of 1864 wore on, without a Union military victory in sight, Northern morale collapsed. Politicians and journalists called for an immediate end to the war, with many predicting that Lincoln would lose the upcoming presidential election. “The people are wild for Peace,” said New York politician Thurlow Weed. They won’t support the president, he added, because they are told he “will only listen to terms of peace on condition [that] slavery be abandoned.”

The commander in chief began to waver. Perhaps, he told himself as he paced the White House hallway late at night, he should enter into peace talks with Southern leaders. On August 19, he drafted a potentially momentous letter to a Democratic politician and newspaper editor, ending the communication with this proposition: “If Jefferson Davis wishes . . . to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.”

Having written these words, Lincoln paused. He did not send the letter; instead, he stored it in his desk while he thought about what to do. Two days later, when the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Lincoln at the White House to discuss helping slaves reach Union military lines, the president read the letter aloud to him. The black activist strongly urged the chief executive to keep it to himself. If he sent it, Douglass said, the missive would be interpreted “as a complete surrender of your anti-slavery policy, and do you serious damage.”

Lincoln returned the letter to his files. With renewed confidence, the president decided emancipation would remain an essential condition of any negotiations with the Confederacy. For a few days during the long, hot summer of 1864, Lincoln had considered backing away from his mission. But in the end—at the moment it really mattered—he did not. He held the line.

Historians and biographers have pointed to a number of Lincoln’s strengths and their role in his leadership. But one of the most significant of these strengths is not often mentioned, and this is that Lincoln simply kept going. Once he made a crucial decision, he saw it through, even when virtually everything around him seemed stacked against such a commitment. This adherence was not the result of stubbornness or self-righteousness. Rather, it came from the care that Lincoln exercised in making choices, including the slowness with which he acted when the stakes were high; from his growing depth as a moral actor; and from his sheer will to get up each morning and do what he could in service of his mission.

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The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. But we, it seems, are not finished with the man who led the country through it. Not by a long shot. Lincoln’s journey was one of learning by doing, ongoing commitment to bettering himself, keen intelligence harnessed to equally acute emotional awareness, and the moral seriousness into which he grew as he attained immense power. It was also an all-too-human path marked by setbacks, derailments, and disappointments.

Abraham Lincoln was made into an effective leader—first from the inside out and then from the outside in—as he developed and changed throughout his life. That, as president, he refused to ignore the larger consequences of his actions on men and women who had little or no agency, that he saw beyond the immediate moment and owned the responsibility of affecting a vast future, and that he rejected an ethical callousness about the choices he made are demonstrations of leadership that we yearn for today. May all who aspire to lead with worth and dignity learn from the life and leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn’s research focuses on effective leadership and how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact. Her latest book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Uncertain Times was published by Scribner/An imprint of Simon & Schuster (October 2017). It spotlights how five of history’s greatest leaders managed crises and what we can each learn from their experience.

To learn more about her and her work, please click here.

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