Lincoln and the Art of Transformative Leadership

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Doris Kearns Goodwin for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Do the times make the leader, or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse people’s lives with a sense of purpose and meaning?

These are among the questions that Doris Kearns Goodwin explores in her new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, which examines four singular styles of leadership: transformative, crisis management, turnaround, and visionary. She follows the course of leadership development in the careers of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, providing case histories that illustrate the skills and strengths that enabled these four men to lead the United States through periods of great upheaval.

The article that follows is excerpted from her case study of Lincoln’s pivotal decision to issue and guide to fruition the Emancipation Proclamation—a purpose that required the support of the cabinet, the army, and, ultimately, the American people. Rarely, Goodwin notes, was a leader better suited to the challenge of the fractured historical moment. Struggle had been his birthright; resilience his keystone strength. Possessed of a powerful emotional intelligence, Lincoln was both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent—able to mediate among factions and sustain the spirits of his countrymen. He displayed an extraordinary ability to absorb the conflicting wills of a divided people and reflect back to them an unbending faith in a unified future.

On July 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln convened a special session of his cabinet to reveal—not to debate—his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. At the outset, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles recalled, Lincoln declared that he fully appreciated that there were “differences in the Cabinet on the slavery question” and welcomed suggestions following the confidential reading. However, he “wished it to be understood that the question was settled in his own mind” and that “the responsibility of the measure was his.” The time for bold action had arrived.

What enabled Lincoln to determine that the time was right for this fundamental transformation in how the war was waged and what the Union was fighting for? And how did he persuade his fractious cabinet, a skeptical army, and his divided countrymen in the North to go along with him?

Certainly, the dire situation of the war and Lincoln’s long-held conviction that “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy” were vital elements. He had always believed, he later said, that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” But underlying all was the steadfast force of his emotional intelligence: his empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline, and generosity of spirit. These qualities proved indispensable to uniting a divided nation and utterly transforming it, and they provide powerful lessons for leaders at every level.

Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.

In the last week of June 1862, Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had suffered a crushing defeat in its first major offensive. In a series of brutal battles, General Robert E. Lee’s forces had repulsed McClellan’s advance up the Virginia Peninsula toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, driving the Union army into retreat, decimating its ranks, and leaving nearly 16,000 dead, captured, or wounded. At one point the capitulation of McClellan’s entire force had seemed possible. Northern morale was at its nadir—lower even than in the aftermath of Bull Run. “Things had gone from bad to worse,” Lincoln recalled of that summer, “until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had played our last card and must change our tactics.”

So the situation stood on July 22, when the president gathered the cabinet to read his proclamation. He enumerated the various congressional acts regarding confiscation of rebel property, repeated his recommendation for compensated emancipation, and reiterated his goal of preserving the Union. And then he read the single sentence that would change the course of history:

As a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object [preservation of the Union], I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord 1863, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward and forever, be free.

The scope of the proclamation was stunning. For the first time, the president yoked the Union and the abolition of slavery in a single transformative moral force. Some 3.5 million blacks in the South, where generations had lived enslaved, were promised freedom. Seventy-eight words in one sentence would supplant legislation on property rights and slavery that had governed policy in the House and the Senate for nearly three-quarters of a century. By postponing for six months the date the proclamation would take effect, however, Lincoln offered the rebellious states a last chance to end the war and return to the Union before permanently forfeiting their slaves.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a historian and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of several biographies of U.S. presidents, including No Ordinary Time, Team of Rivals, The Bully Pulpit, and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Her newest book is Leadership in Turbulent Times (Simon & Schuster, September 2018).


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