Leadership in a crisis has been a popular topic lately, with Abraham Lincoln often mentioned in the context of saving the Union. This begs the question as to what leadership qualities are useful in a crisis, and what leadership lessons can we learn from Lincoln.
All this started because of the coronavirus health crisis and the apparent lack of national leadership in dealing with it. Two weeks ago I wrote a post on my author website called “That Time Lincoln Got a Virus and Almost Died.” That post led to a full hour discussion on The Railsplitter, a podcast dedicated to examining Lincoln and the Civil War. A few days later I participated in an online webinar with Louis Masur, a Lincoln scholar at Rutgers University, who discussed “Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln.” Then last night was another online discussion about “Statesmanship in a Time of Crisis” with eminent Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo. Next week is yet another online workshop sponsored by the President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, this one using Lincoln to examine “Emotional Intelligence in Crisis Leadership.” Even former President Obama offered a leadership thought stemming from a particular quality of Lincoln.
All of these programs have one thing in common. Everyone turns to Abraham Lincoln when discussing how to deal with a significant crisis. And rightly they should. Lincoln helped the nation get through its most difficult crisis, when the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions fought respectively to destroy or save the Union. Because of Lincoln, the Union was saved.
When asked what leadership qualities of Lincoln got us through the Civil War and can help us through both our current health and constitutional crises, specific answers differed. But most agreed that honesty and integrity are critical to instill confidence in the path forward, even when that path is fraught with uncertainty.
During my “Lincoln and Viruses” podcast, when asked how Lincoln might handle the current coronavirus crisis, I suggested that Lincoln would be deliberative, listen to experts, and decisive. Louis Masur agreed that Lincoln qualities needed today include: be honest, admit what you don’t know, be willing to listen, ensure everyone is working towards solutions that benefit the public, and evaluate, deliberate, and accurately communicate. He suggested that a president should offer some sense of comfort and hope, as well as know when to hold their fire (i.e., work towards solutions, not berate mistakes). Masur also suggested using humor to facilitate communication and public confidence. Separately on this topic, journalist and Lincolnophile Ed Epstein noted that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was adept at using appropriate levels of humor to help her constituents through this trying time. Lincoln was certainly known for using humor as a means of reaching the public and lightening the load for those on the front lines.
Allen Guelzo referred to Lincoln as both a statesman and leader, two skills that are not necessarily present in the same person (e.g., James Madison was a great statesman, not so great a President). Guelzo also suggested that one of Lincoln’s greatest traits was to know what the federal government can and should do, while leaving the generals and governors to do what they are best at doing. This seems to be a variation on the medical creed of “First, do no harm,” followed by doing everything in his power as leader to help those leaders in the field. Lincoln helped and encouraged his field generals, not inhibited or attacked them.
The Guelzo conversation (with Madison historian Robert George) also touched on how leaders interact with experts. Experts, for example Dr. Fauci in this coronavirus crisis, provide the fruits of their expertise. While it is critical to listen to the experts, the leader must evaluate the information in toto, that is, collect information from a variety of experts and integrate into the bigger picture, deliberate, then decide and move forward. You don’t attack or dismiss expertise, you assimilate and incorporate it into honest decision-making. Lincoln understood this and listened to many experts, then made decisions consistent with that information in the greater context. Once decided, he moved forward with gusto to make it happen. As he told General Grant, “Let the thing be pressed.”
Former President Barack Obama also spoke this week in support of the medical community and leaders at the local and state level. He told the nation’s mayors that “the biggest mistake any (of) us can make in these situations is to misinform.” Be honest. Be helpful. Communicate accurately and earnestly in an effort to keep the public informed. Keep your eye on the goal – to help everyone get through the stormy present.
Leadership is hard. It requires someone willing to listen, capable of thoughtful deliberation, and the ability to keep the best interests of the public in mind. Leaders do not work against their Generals or Governors (or doctors); they assist and facilitate their efforts. Leaders do not publicly berate others; they work to help them take the needed steps. Leaders don’t lie to protect their ego or their bank accounts; they provide honest information so that people can make the right choices.
One thing became clear through all these looks at Lincoln’s leadership qualities: these qualities are sorely lacking today, and more Americans are dying because of the lack of leadership.
We could use Abraham Lincoln right now.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.