The leadership journey of Abraham Lincoln

 

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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Hear the call to action contained in Abraham Lincoln’s story, and get to work. The world has never needed you and other real leaders more than it does now.

Many years ago, I made a short film for the Harvard Business School about the lessons that Abraham Lincoln’s life offered for modern leaders. I interviewed a range of CEOs, asking them what they’d learned from the 16th president. Their responses were wide-ranging and profound; many continue to influence my work on leadership.

I was particularly struck by what A. G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble at the time, said about how leaders are made. He pointed to three main ingredients. The first is an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and the cumulative experience a person acquires walking his or her path. The second is that an individual recognizes a moment has arrived that demands his or her leadership. The third is that the individual has to consciously decide “to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

Making oneself into a courageous leader, in the way Lafley describes, is perilous, compelling, and exhausting work. It also is some of the most satisfying one can do, and it could not be more important today. Like the turbulent Civil War that Lincoln found himself at the center of, the early 21st century cries out for effective, decent leaders. People of purpose and commitment who want to make a positive difference and who choose to rise: first within themselves, by claiming their better selves, and then on the larger stage, by staking out the higher ground.

Abraham Lincoln has something to offer each of us right now as we try to craft lives of purpose, dignity, and impact. Are you ready to hear the call to action contained in his story?

Discernment

Lincoln had humble roots and no formal education. By age 25, he also had a growing interest in politics, and needed a career to feed that interest while helping him improve his lot. Lincoln began borrowing the law books of a mentor from the Illinois state militia who was an accomplished attorney and state legislator. He studied by himself. A neighbor remembered Lincoln “was so absorbed that people said he was crazy. Sometimes [while he was studying he] did not notice people when he met them.”

We do not know exactly how Lincoln sustained his determination to succeed. What we do know is that from an early age he practiced great discipline in relation to the things that mattered. Some of the discipline was focused on practical ends: toward preparing himself to be a lawyer or bettering himself intellectually. Some of it was directed at managing his emotions. As his prospects expanded, he worked to comport himself with greater dignity and forbearance.

He earned a reputation as an attorney who was skilled before a jury. Not because he mastered the laws of evidence or finer points of precedents; he did neither. Instead, this reputation rested on his ability to concentrate a jury’s attention on the few essential points of a case while conceding the less important issues to his opponent.

Lincoln’s ability to relate to juries provides a useful lesson about discernment.

Leaders trying to accomplish a worthy mission have to cultivate the ability to identify the one, two, or three essential issues facing them at a given moment. It is never five or ten. It is always one or two—maybe three—issues that really matter. Having identified these, leaders must let the remaining concerns go, either by giving themselves permission to turn their attention away from all that is not central to their purpose or by handing peripheral issues to others, including an adversary. Being able to do this—to concentrate on the most important issues while relinquishing the rest—depends on a leader’s willingness to recognize two things: first, he or she cannot do it all, and second, by saying no to that which is not mission critical, one is actually saying yes to that which is.

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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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