It is said by others that Abraham Lincoln is the greatest leader the United States of America has ever had. There are many things that I can learn from Abraham Lincoln’s life as it applies to me and my work as a Christian leader. There are four distinct leadership lessons Abraham Lincoln shows that can be directly applied to my own work in Christian ministry and leadership. The first of the four is about the necessity of reading the Bible and using it as a guide.
I. KEEP A BIBLE NEARBY AND READ IT OFTEN
One of the three books which Mr. Lincoln often read and memorized sections of during his youth was the Bible.[ref] Ronald D. Rietveld, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?” Bibliotheca Sacra (January 1960): 59.[/ref]
Later on as Lincoln became President many people witnessed that he always kept a Bible on his desk and read it often.[ref]David Grubin, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, DVD (American Experience and PBS, 2005).[/ref] In fact, as the Civil War began and caused increased stress and tribulations he often read it more and focused on specific stories that would encourage him and help with the situations he was in.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] In Lincoln’s Philadelphia Speech at Independence Hall in 1861 he showed what a solid biblical foundation does for a leader when he needs to stand up on an issue. Lincoln made a speech about how the “weights [of slavery] should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”[ref]Abraham Lincoln, “Philadelphia Speech” (speech, Independence Hall, 1861).[/ref] In the speech Lincoln also explained that the only way there would be bloodshed and war was if it was forced upon the government. Then Lincoln boldly declared his commitment, “I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] One of the important things for Christian leaders is to have conviction for what they are doing that is founded in biblical principles.
Additionally, a careful reading of Lincoln’s speeches reveals that he used Bible based scripture imagery and literal quoting on a regular basis when appropriate such as “let us judge not, that we be not judged” and “the Almighty has His own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]
As a Christian leader I too must read the Bible often and memorize chunks of it. To lead people in an authentic way I must know what God’s word says and use it to guide others that way. Knowing God’s verses and stories allows me to pull those out when I need them as I interact with people who are going through difficult circumstances and or I myself am going through difficult circumstances. And perhaps the greatest way to be a well formed Christian leader is allowing God’s word to marinate in my life in a way that molds and forms me into a great leader.
Thus far in my ministry I have kept my New Living Translation (NLT) Study Bible on my desk while at home doing schoolwork and other work, but I have not applied this to my professional life at work at the United Way of Stanislaus County. One of the next steps is to bring a Bible I can set on the corner of my desk and read it when facing difficult circumstances and situations.
As Lincoln was witnessed to always keep a Bible on his desk and to read it often, it is a leadership example that if it helped to end slavery and gave him the strength to stand up against it, then I too should do the same. Perhaps some of Lincoln’s relationship to the Bible helped him develop another leadership quality worth noting which will be discussed next: his ability to stand firm.
II. STAND FIRM
Lincoln stood firm on many issues while president against opposition from others both within his own Presidential Cabinet and outsiders too.[ref]The concept of Lincoln developing a Presidential Cabinet of men who often strongly opposed him on many issues is a topic so amazing that Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book about this topic titled, Team of Rivals: The Practical Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005). In the book she specifically describes how Lincoln mastered the art of leading other men so well that he was able to assemble a Presidential Cabinet of men who mostly opposed many of his beliefs, but how in the end Lincoln was able to masterfully employ them to help keep the Union together and end slavery.[/ref]
No greater quote can illustrate his ability to stand firm on an issue than this quote he made in 1939: “Broken by it, I, too may be; bow to it I never will. The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me.”[ref]William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002), 144. [/ref] Historians disagree about whether Lincoln’s quote is about banking or slavery. Early historians (including the pastor who read this quote at his funeral) believe Lincoln was talking about slavery, while historians as of late claim Lincoln was speaking on the topic of banking. A careful study of Lincoln will reveal that as a member of the Whig Party early in his political career (which was at the time he made this speech) meant he was in strong favor of a US bank and it is well known his stance on slavery. Whichever topic he was discussing does not matter because his steadfast commitment to both issues was the same. The only difference was the strength of opinion and belief of the American people when sought to change each issue as he rose in his political career.
Another example of Lincoln standing firm came in the context of Mr. Lincoln standing up for his wife, Mary Lincoln, when others accused her of inviting unworthy guests to the White House. Mr. Lincoln calmly responded to the criticizer that he and his wife will invite whom they please to have as company in their home and that they do not need any outside help in selecting their guests to entertain.[ref]David Grubin, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, DVD (American Experience and PBS, 2005).[/ref]
One more great example of Lincoln standing firm was when he talked about the necessity of all men being equal when he commented, “there is no need of bloodshed and war. . . . there will be no bloodshed unless it be forced upon the government. The government will not use force unless force is used against it.”[ref]Abraham Lincoln, “Philadelphia Speech” (speech, Independence Hall, 1861).[/ref] But, Lincoln makes it very clear that he is the one in charge and that there will be use of force if the Confederate States decide to start a war and have a war. There are many more instances where Lincoln stood firm on issues. The most common issue which Lincoln stood firm on for many years was the topic of slavery. Lincoln believed that if it was not abolished, it should at least not be allowed to spread.
In my life there are instances where I need to stand firm, and this probably is an area where I need to have more confidence. When instances come up and situations arise that I have a strong feeling on, I need to take a position and stand firm on what I believe in. But this is sometimes difficult because I am at times scared to anger others. Learning about this quality Lincoln had helps me to realize that some topics are so important that it is okay to anger others when it leads to standing firm for what is right.
III. SELF-LED GROWTH
Lincoln was a self-grower: meaning he worked hard to grow personally and professionally so that he could read, write, speak well, and lead.
In this way, he pushed himself to do what was needed to be done and he grew along the way.
The level of Lincoln’s accomplishment is amazing when considering his limited formal schooling. Several sources show that Lincoln probably only had as much as a year of formal schooling. One biographer comments on his ability to learn and grow: “He developed a confidence that he could dig into books for what he wanted, and would so repeatedly in the years ahead. And that confidence in his powers of understanding what was written on the page seems to have encouraged a broader self-confidence, in his judgment and his critical powers-let us call it a moral self-confidence.”[ref]William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, 53.[/ref]
Later when the Civil War started Lincoln himself admitted he knew nothing about military strategy, tactics, or how to win a war. Concurrent with his past history of digging into books to find the answer he needed, Lincoln began studying war tactics, maps of the South, and actively working with his military generals to the point that he was a well versed military man by the end of the Civil War.
In the context of Christian Ministry and Leadership I too must have self-led growth. Eighteen months of education in Christian Ministry and Leadership is not going to teach me all the things I must know to effectively serve and lead others. To be as great of a leader as Lincoln was, I will need to practice self-led growth by regularly reading books, attending conferences, and spending time with others who will stretch me to grow and develop.
As we will see next, Lincoln’s self-led growth will be the most important aspect that allows him to actively lead.
IV. ACTIVELY LEAD
Perhaps one of the Lincoln’s greatest assets was during the Civil War when Lincoln actively led.
Early in his presidency he said he never wanted to dabble in the military, but when the Confederates (in the South) decided they wanted to start a war in order to separate themselves from the Union (in the North), Lincoln had to lead the war.[ref]David Grubin, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, DVD (American Experience and PBS, 2005).[/ref] He had to allow his military officers to lead but he also monitored them, which is how he was able to know when to fire them and when to promote them. Because Lincoln had to actively lead both in and out of the Civil War he was quoted saying, “As commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”[ref]Thomas E. Schneider, “Lincoln and Leadership,” Perspectives on Political Science (Spring 2007), 71.[/ref] And that is what Lincoln did during the military. He made trips to visit his troops, he regularly communicated with his military generals, he nervously anticipated war reports as they came in over the telegraph machine, and he fired and promoted generals based on their performance and willingness to carry out his orders. Lincoln’s habit of actively leading helped him know when he had a military general who needed to be fired and when he needed to promote someone else. Because he was actively engaged in the war studying strategy and reviewing reports on a daily basis he was better equipped to lead his nation. He so closely monitored what was going on, he knew what results to expect in the war.
The greatest description of how Lincoln actively led while President and during the Civil War is described in “Lincoln’s Personal Motives and Capacities for Reconciliation:”[ref]Daniel Lieberfeld, “Lincoln, Mandela, and Qualities of Reconciliation-oriented Leadership,” Peace and Conflict 15 (2009): 34-44.[/ref]
- Self-control and Forgiveness: His emotional balance in difficult situations was attributable to “acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.”[ref]Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 607.[/ref]
- Empathy and Cognitive Complexity: His ability to show empathy helped his political efforts and ability to forgive others.[ref]Daniel Lieberfeld, “Lincoln, Mandela, and Qualities of Reconciliation-oriented Leadership,” Peace and Conflict 15 (2009): 38.[/ref]
- Optimism About Others’ Potential to Change: His own ability for intellectual growth helped him be optimistic for positive change in others.[ref]Ibid., 40-41[/ref]
- Intellectual Formation and Reconciliation Policy: His habit of reading history and biography reinforced his tendency for precedent.[ref]Ibid., 42[/ref]
With these qualities, Lincoln was successful in actively leading. His self-control and forgiveness was necessary during difficult times working with military generals who would not follow orders. His empathy and cognitive complexity helped him to create a proper so called “punishment” for the Confederates (South) after the Civil War ended because he said they would not necessarily be punished, but the result of the Union (North) ending the war over the Confederates would be that they would no longer be able to have slavery.
Lincoln’s optimism for others to change is probably best shown in his original plan that showed the war ending in 90 days. One of the saddest parts of Lincoln’s assassination only one week after the end of the Civil War was that many of his reformation and reconstruction ideas and policies were not implemented. In his mind he already had many great ideas to put our nation back together after the Civil War which were not carried out to their fullest capacities. Actively leading is something I do well. I am good at casting vision and actively plotting us to get there and making progress along the way. Due to the demand to be highly organized and administratively savvy at my current job, it has helped me to develop this quality of learning to actively lead (some would call this “project management”) which I am grateful to have learned about.
When studying the life of a great man and leader such as Abraham Lincoln, there are many things that can be learned about leadership.
These four aspects of keeping a Bible nearby and reading it often, standing firm, self-led growth, and actively leading are great principles that can and should be applied to the life of a Christian leader such as myself.
However, the greatest impact on my life as a Christian leader is from the picture of who Lincoln was based on the many accounts of his character and leadership qualities. Mr. Lincoln set an extremely high standard for young leaders such as myself to strive for. As I work towards doing great things, Lincoln’s example of holding to his Christian values while still in office, standing firm on important issues despite strong opposition, constantly seeking to have self-led growth, and actively leading in the areas that is needed all make strong impressions in my mind.
I believe that going I will begin practicing more of these Lincoln Leadership lessons perhaps without even realizing it. Who Lincoln was is now part of me, and I know that will make me into a better Christian leader going forward.