Lessons from Lincoln

I’m pleased to be living in the land of Lincoln! I’ve read a number of books about our 16th President over the last few years, so like many others, Ken and I headed to the theater to see the new movie, Lincoln.

It’s been my observation that many leaders of previous decades immersed themselves in the lives of the presidents in order to learn from them. Even today as many of us rely on leadership literature, those leaders of government, law, church, and business were interested in what provided good leadership from the lives of those who led, especially during difficult times. I know of one retired bishop of the United Methodist Church who has what I would call a “shrine” to Abraham Lincoln because of his fascination with his leadership and the lessons that it gives us even today.

So I want to reflect upon a few lessons I was reminded of or impressed with again in viewing the movie.

Lincoln led with a story. He was known to have a reservoir of stories for every occasion. He used them to make a point and he used them to break the tension in the moment. At one very tense moment in the movie, Lincoln begins to tell a story, seemingly out of context with what was going on. Edwin Stanton, seeing that Lincoln was about to begin to tell a story at the moment when critical news was coming in from the war effort in Wilmington, cuts him off by saying, “You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!” After his outburst, the room went dead quiet. Then Lincoln continues with his story without missing a beat. Lincoln knew that a story can sometimes transform a moment better than a proclamation or declaration or even a reprimand.

It reminded me of when Jesus’ disciples asked him why he was always telling stories in Matthew 13:10-13. Presumably other teachers didn’t rely upon stories to the extent that Jesus did. Jesus’ response was that it opened people up to be receptive to new insights. In our culture, we rely upon rational arguments to convince or influence others, but Abraham Lincoln, like Jesus, knew when to lead with a story.

Lincoln led by listening to people. In sharp contrast to the way the president today and other officials are forced to live—protected from the crowds of people—Lincoln went out among the ordinary people, listening to their stories. He went into the trenches where soldiers lined up to tell him who they were and what they had to say about the war. A certain time each week was set aside when people were allowed to come to his office and tell him their stories, their hurts and hopes.

His leadership was shaped by his willingness and freedom to learn “from the edges,” as some call it today; not just talking to the people we always talk to or who already see things our way. He talked to the people whose lives were directly impacted by his decisions—life and death decisions. I read a book once about his melancholy. He had plenty to be melancholic about as he was fully aware of the death that resulted from the war. He made decisions with his head and heart but as a result, he carried the sadness of the nation. That can be part of leadership, too.

I’ve tried to keep this practice in mind as I go about my work, making sure that I talk to people who don’t care about how the United Methodist Church is organized or even what the Christian church, much less the UMC, believes about any particular thing. I learn from people of other people I work with day in and day out. I am deliberate about having these conversations. I also like to talk to people in church fellowships halls. I’ve always loved to hear about what people do for a living and how they take their faith to their work or their life’s task. Especially in the church, we can become so immersed in the work of the church that we lose perspective on the hurts and hopes of people around us.

Lincoln led through deep thinking as well as action. In the movie, Lincoln is shown spending a lot of time by himself, thinking, planning, and strategizing. I believe he had a vision of what the nation would be like after the war was over. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the movie has wondered what our country might have been like if he had been the president who led us through the post-war effort and reconciliation.

We’ve become a people of immediate action and we don’t always spend enough time thinking, pondering and, as Christians we could also add, praying. Thinking deeply about the important issues of his day, how to carry out his deeply-held convictions, like passing the 13th amendment and stopping the war, caused him to be well-grounded in his decision and actions once he came to them.

Lincoln was flexible in his thinking. One of my favorite quotes from the movie is when he recites Euclidean mathematics by applying it to the burning issue of the day: “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.” His application was that if black people and white people or free and slave were each equally important to God, then we are equal to each other. But Lincoln was a work in progress on this. He didn’t come to the conviction to eliminate slavery in the US at the beginning; it came to him over time. He changed his mind and heart, perhaps because he listened to peoples’ stories, thought deeply about them, and applied abstract thoughts to concrete reality. It’s difficult for us to accept politicians or leaders of any kind who have a change of heart. Yet he managed to get the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution to abolish slavery passed because he changed his mind and heart.

Finally, Lincoln led with courage. Mary Todd Lincoln said to him at one point, “No one has ever lived who knows better than you the proper placement of footfalls on treacherous paths.” Courageous, strategic, determined, intentional, and also embattled leadership is essential in getting any big thing done.

May God help us to be more like Lincoln in our civic and church life!
~Bishop Sally Dyck

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