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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: Lincoln's Magnanimity

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2015

Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

LincolnAbraham Lincoln has been praised for possessing so many qualities of leadership. Fortitude. Humor. Humility. Persistence and perseverance. Vision. Shrewdness. Wisdom. Prudence. Political genius. Even ruthlessness.

Among the qualities of leadership for which Lincoln ought to be praised, one in particular stood out when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005). Goodwin, herself, names the virtue: magnanimity. It has been some time now since I read her astonishing study, but I can't shake the portrait of Lincoln she paints.

I find myself often asking, "How was Lincoln capable in the midst of the bitterness and hatred that divided his country and the vainglory and ambition that divided his party to stay the course with such grace? What made Lincoln so magnanimous? How might we as leaders learn to be more like him?"

For many people who have read Goodwin's biography, the most memorable illustration of Lincoln's leadership occurs in the midst of the political battle that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The House vote hung by the narrowest of threads. Lincoln took two of his political allies aside and charged them to find the two additional votes needed for passage of the amendment. As she tells the story, you can visualize this most persuasive of presidents grabbing the two representatives by their lapels as he says to them:

I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come - a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.

For students of leadership, there's a master’s-level seminar in leadership bundled into this exchange.

Lincoln's humanity, his devotion to justice, and his commitment to erase the evil of slavery from American soil are all on display in his charge. So is his willingness to turn a blind eye to political chicanery if that's what it takes to accomplish the holy end of abolition. He appeals to the better angels of his two allies. His rhetoric raises this political moment above the mundane, touching the very hem of eternity. And yet a not-too-subtle implicit threat and an enticing partisan promise also hangs in the air. He reiterates the threat/promise twice, reminding these political operatives that he has the power to make good and bad things happen. (In the movie, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg placed Lincoln’s comments in the context of a cabinet meeting, which changes their tenor.)

Certainly there's much about leadership worthy of contemplation in this emotionally and politically charged moment. But this is not what stands out most for me when I think about Lincoln's leadership, at least in light of Goodwin's account.

What strikes me as most distinctive about the character of Lincoln's leadership is the complete lack of malice he demonstrated toward those who opposed him, undercut his leadership, ridiculed him personally and even plotted against him. I will take just two examples, both of them people whom Lincoln had placed in their positions of leadership: Salmon Chase, the man Lincoln named as Secretary of the Treasury, and George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln made a major general in the Union Army. Lincoln's magnanimous dealings with them would be entirely incredible were it not so fully documented.

Chase, while serving on Lincoln's cabinet, wrote letters by the score to congressmen, journalists, even generals, pointing out failures in Lincoln's leadership. In one instance, Chase wrote to the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette to say: "I should fear nothing if we had An Administration in the first sense of the word guided by a bold, resolute, farseeing & active mind, guided by an honest, earnest heart. But this we have not. Oh! for energy & economy in the management of the War." Chase repeatedly proved himself unworthy of Lincoln's confidence, yet Lincoln persisted in his magnanimous behavior toward Chase.

General McClellan's disdain for his Commander in Chief is the stuff of legend. In one instance, McClellan reported that he had gone to the White House on a Sunday after tea and there saw (referring to the President) "the original gorilla." McClellan wrote, "What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!" McClellan's insults of the President extended beyond the verbal. He refused to meet with President Lincoln when the President came to his home to confer about the conduct of the war. And, though it is truly hard to imagine such insubordination, McClellan ignored orders given by the President. At one point, Lincoln wondered aloud whether, if the general were not going to make use of the army, perhaps he might allow the President to borrow it. McClellan, running as a Democrat, later opposed Lincoln for the presidency on a platform that, as one political observer wrote, could have been drawn up by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

President Lincoln's toleration of the behavior of such men is remarkable. The factors which made him tolerant were complicated.

President Lincoln, as many have observed, assembled the people on his cabinet and in the leadership of the Union Army whom he believed possessed the gifts the nation most needed at that moment of national crisis. He was mindful of the personal political risks he took with some of his appointments, but he overcame the distaste. Of his decision to appoint Chase, for example, he later told a colleague, that he "would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase," but he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do for the country. There were also political considerations in Lincoln's appointments which should never be forgotten. He tolerated some individuals in order to gain the favor of their constituents.

Lincoln had a remarkable capacity to understand and accept the weaknesses of others because he seemed to understand in his very bones that one cannot successfully sever people's strengths from their weaknesses. He knew this of himself, and he saw the same principle at work in others as well. The ambitions that made both Chase and McClellan intolerable to many had the potential to make them invaluable to the country. But there was something else in Lincoln that goes well beyond his political savvy and humane pragmatism.

Goodwin, early in her study of Lincoln, writes:

Lincoln's abhorrence of hurting another was born of more than simple compassion. He possessed extraordinary empathy - the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.

She quotes the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith to further illuminate her thesis:

By the imagination we place ourselves in [another person's] situation … we enter as it were into his body and become in some measure him. … [This] is "the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others … by changing places in fancy with the sufferer … we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels."

Such empathy can, in fact, crush the soul of the empathetic, paralyzing the person who enters into such profound "fellow-feeling" that he or she is rendered incapable of acting, even if matters of justice are on the line. (Hear Louisville Seminary Professor Scott Williamson's excellent convocation address to learn more about this.) In Lincoln, however, empathy was employed to enlarge his spirit. And while empathy, according to Goodwin, was related to Lincoln's profound melancholy, nevertheless "it would prove an enormous asset to his political career." And, we should add, to his leading our country toward a more just future.

At times, Lincoln seemed almost to suffer the loss of every life on both sides of the Civil War as a personal grief. Yet, when it came to the political realm, Lincoln possessed a profound empathy and a kind of emotional detachment that kept him from taking personally the contempt and machinations of his foes. The result in Lincoln was a magnanimous spirit that towered above all those who opposed him and made those who admired him come to love him.

Secretary William H. Seward, who at one time had been a genuine political rival of Lincoln's, eventually became one of Lincoln's most trusted colleagues. Seward said of the President "that his magnanimity is almost superhuman." Edwin Stanton, once Chase's close friend, was for a long time no admirer of Lincoln. But Stanton's admiration and affection, at long last won by the President, is remembered today as the man at Lincoln's deathbed who said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

It may be questionable to what degree most of us mere mortals can benefit from observing the qualities of a leader like Lincoln. There is so much in his bitter losses as a child and in his defeats as a young person, in the formative influence of a beloved step-mother and the bonds of close friendship in his early working life, that came together to make Lincoln who he was and formed his virtues. But I take some comfort in an historic practice of the church, that is, its veneration of saints. Among the many reasons saints are remembered by us is because we believe that they inspire us to live more like them. There may even be something in the bonds of veneration that empowers us to be more like them.

Maybe observing and appreciating Lincoln's magnanimous leadership can make us all better leaders.

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