Friday, August 15, 2014

“Lincoln on Leadership” – A Review

 Our cause must be entrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends – whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work – who care for the result.
- Remarks from “House Divided” Speech 1858

Educators, in many surveys, are described as people who are non-risk takers, who seek to please; compliant and sensitive to others.  Collectively, these and other common traits serve the purpose of moving most kids through their educational years with some balance of empathy and rigor.  It is often assumed that educational leaders, mainly coming from the ranks of educators in general, possess those same characteristics.  Arguably then, tough decisions that arise for all leaders appear tougher when viewed through the complex lenses of the teacher-turned-leader.

As a by-product of a recent visit to Lincoln’s boyhood home, I picked up and read “Lincoln on Leadership,” by Donald T. Phillips subtitled “Executive Strategies for Tough Times.” If ever a leader were ever confronted with monumental crises, it would be our sixteenth president.

Phillips discusses the circumstances from which many of Lincoln’s most time-honored writings grew and concludes chapters with principles Lincoln employed as he brought the nation back from its most critical hours and days:

·      If subordinates can stand it, so can you.  Set the example.
·      Invest time and money in better understanding the ins and outs of human nature.
·      When you extinguish hope, you create desperation.
·      The organization will take on the personality of its top leader.
·      Truth is the best vindication against slander.
·      When you are in deep distress and cannot restrain some expression of it, sit down, and write out a harsh letter venting your anger.  But don’t send it.

Whether a leader finds him or herself in the role of turning around General Motors, crafting a plan for intervention in Syria or Iraq, or achieving consensus with a group of primary teachers, the issue always gets down to people hearing, understanding, assisting and clearing the way for other people.  Too frequently, we find ourselves learning techniques about leadership only from a small wedge of individuals who come from our own field, thus missing out on the wisdom afforded by those with a perspective of greater, or at least, different challenges.

Reflecting on my own career, I suppose I inherently got some of Lincoln’s teachings right, but there are a hell of a lot I wish I’d have understood at critical moments.  Phillips's book, at times, provided a less than comfortable mirror for me.

Teacher/leader buddies: this nicely proportioned volume comes highly recommended.  This is published by an imprint of Hachette Book Group, so don’t expect to find it on Amazon.  Instead, see your local bookseller.


“Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times.”  Donald T. Phillips.  Business Plus.  1992.  $15.

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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