A Study in Leadership
I just finished David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. It’s not the same person I learned about in school.
This Lincoln has both an ego and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s self educated, but politically astute. He has a strong work ethic, but he’s a weak disciplinarian when it comes to his kids. He is a self-made man, yet he has doubts about his leadership ability. He has enormous patience, but when it’s exhausted, he’s finished. He has problems at home – money, the death of a beloved child, and a hysterical, spendthrift wife more impressed with her station than her husband is. In short, Donald’s Lincoln is intensely human with all the flaws, pressures, and self-doubts that most leaders have today.
At the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, many Washington insiders felt he was well meaning, but not up to the job. His orders at the beginning of the war were often ignored by his generals in the field. His inability to deal effectively with political insider squabbles and incompetent generals was both personally frustrating and politically damaging. And yet, and yet … he persevered, he grew, and he became one of our greatest leaders.
Donald’s Lincoln is a study in leadership development. It turns out that the man who became arguably our greatest president had to deal with some of the same petty issues that anyone in any leadership position does. He didn’t come fully formed into the Presidency, but he developed a greater capacity for thought and resilience that many believed he could.
Any school leader has to take away from this book a sense of comfort, not because there are dozens of incipient Lincolns out there in principals’ or superintendents’ offices, but because of the example of perseverance and eventual success Lincoln demonstrates. His humility and his refusal to take things personally served him well amidst the ugly and self-serving arguments among his staff.
This isn’t the Lincoln stamped on the shiny new penny, but the awkward man who developed grace under fire. And there’s the example for us.