Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780


Feb. 25, 2002

Lincoln the Leader

By Bailey Thomson

Before February slips away, I want to say a few words about my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. No other chief executive, with the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ever matched Lincoln’s ability to communicate and then motivate citizens to follow.

Had fate not brought this gangly politician with a homespun accent to the White House, the United States might be two separate nations today. The Union’s victory in the Civil War was not a given—despite the North’s overwhelming material advantages. Indeed, a lesser president would have sued for peace after the carnage of 1862, when casualties from history’s first modern conflict reached unimaginably bloody levels.

Lincoln succeeded because he presented great ideas with clarity and humility. He could turn virtually any occasion into a teaching moment, as he did at the Gettysburg battlefield on Nov. 19, 1863, where more than 50,000 Americans had fallen a few months earlier. 

How could any words make sense of such slaughter? Lincoln’s response was that the living owed the dead assurance their sacrifice would lead to a new birth of freedom and “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

In a speech that had just 285 words, Lincoln expressed not only the nation’s gratitude for the soldiers’ sacrifice but also its determination to fulfill the great vision behind the American experiment. It was for the living to dedicate themselves to the great unfinished work of democracy, he said..

Lincoln made another magnificent brief speech on March 4, 1865, at his second inaugural. The bloody war was close to ending. The president’s success had silenced most of his severe critics. And Congress had passed an amendment to end slavery forever. A lesser leader would have used that occasion to remind his countrymen of all he had done for them. But not Lincoln. Instead, he spoke of binding the nation’s wounds, while finishing the work at hand.

The great purpose ahead, he said, was to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Those words foreshadowed the reconciliation of the two warring sections and the hope for democracy everywhere.

We need Lincoln’s words to remind us why we are Americans. We also need him to show us how a real leader acts and sounds.

In his little book “Lincoln on Leadership,” Donald T. Phillips writes that the president formed a moral compact with the people. He made them participants in a great effort, and they responded by trusting his honesty and integrity.

“It is the leader’s role,” Phillips observes,” to lift followers out of their everyday selves up to a higher level of awareness, motivation, and commitment.” In the language of contemporary management, the great leader must set--and respond to—the goals and values that motivate those who follow.

Such clarity of purpose and vision may seem unlikely in today’s cacophony of public messages. Politicians are more inclined to follow voters rather than lead them to some higher ground. But leadership remains as possible today as it was in Lincoln’s time, provided the leader knows where he or she wants to go and has the courage to get there.  

Public speaking was for Lincoln the way to move the people forward. He never left to chance what he wanted to say. He crafted each speech to perfection, practiced it and then delivered it flawlessly. With his words, he gave meaning to the actions he advocated. And it is the meaning we remember when we recite his great words.

An anthology of Lincoln’s speeches notes that Frederick Douglass, the former slave who had worked to free his people, visited the White House after the Second Inaugural Address.  Caught up in the emotion of victory, Douglass called Lincoln’s short speech a “sacred effort.”

To which the Great Emancipator replied in typical modesty, “I am glad you liked it.”

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