The movie Lincoln is a case study in how a leader creates a vision for an organization, communicates that vision, and evolves the vision over time. Lincoln realized a leader must develop and articulate a vision in a fashion that followers can “digest” and accept. The leader must also take advantage of important moments to communicate changes to the vision. These refinements must be both timely and timed to occur when the organization is focused on an intermediate step.
Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in the spring of 1861 firmly opposed to slavery. Still in his first inaugural address he stated that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it existed. Rather he described a vision focused on preserving the Union and preventing war. He knew that to argue for the elimination of the so-called “peculiar institution” at that moment would insure war, prevent any possibility of reconciliation with Southern states, and might not be widely accepted even in the North.
Following the attack on Ft. Sumter the nation rallied to preserve the Union. By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln realized that the time had come to expand on his initial vision and began secret discussions with his cabinet on the Emancipation Proclamation. Late that summer he achieved agreement on a draft document and announced it following a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September. Still it only freed slaves in the “states under rebellion” and did not go into effect until 1 January 1863. Consequently, it had no effect on slaves in the border states and if any southern state had returned to the Union in the intervening months they could have retained their slaves. When any leader announces an evolution in the organization’s vision it is met with opposition. Frederick Douglass (himself a former slave) ridiculed the President for not ending slavery throughout the entire nation. Others who had supported the war to preserve the Union announced their firm opposition to any effort to expand the goals of the war to end slavery.
On a cold day in the autumn of 1863 Lincoln mounted a stage at the Gettysburg cemetery to make “a few appropriate remarks”. He delivered an address of 272 words which may be the clearest and most concise statement of a strategic vision in the English language. He began by telling the audience where they and the country had been – four score and seven years ago which connected these remarks with the Declaration of Independence and its opening statement of essential values – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal. He then moved to where the nation was that afternoon. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. Lincoln concluded with a statement of a revised vision for the future. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
By the spring of 1864 the Union Army was bogged down outside Richmond in a series of bloody battles of attrition. Many Republicans had begun to argue that Lincoln should not be nominated for a second term. The fall of Atlanta in September to General Sherman, however, restored the nation’s confidence. Lincoln was reelected President on a campaign slogan of “Liberty and the Union” which summarized the theme of the Gettysburg Address.
As dramatically portrayed in the movie the stage was set for the debate over an amendment to end slavery forever in January 1865. Many of Lincoln’s supporters argued that this was premature and urged him to wait until the war was over. But the President overrode the opposition and succeeded in securing passage of the amendment.
On March 4, 1865 Lincoln ascended the podium at the Capitol for his second inaugural address. The war had lasted four years and over 600,000 Americans had died, but Union armies appeared close to victory. Everyone in the audience had lost someone – brother, father, son, nephew, etc. The President could called for retribution against Confederate leaders (Lee, Davis, etc.), and the audience would have likely endorsed the sentiment. But Lincoln returned to his initial vision of preserving the Union. In 703 words carefully crafted words the re-elected president delivered what he believed to be his finest speech. He would anchor the hope of the nation’s future with malice toward none and with charity towards all. In the days that followed the pace of events would accelerate. In late March Lincoln met with his principal military leaders – General Grant, Admiral Porter, and General Sherman to discuss the end of the war. As he departed the President gave his commanders his final guidance – Let them up easy. They would follow this counsel in the terms they offered during the surrender of Confederate armies.
On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. The nation rejoiced and on the following evening there were fireworks and parades in Washington. Crowds assembled on the White House lawn, and Lincoln delivered his final speech. He reiterated his desire to reconcile the southern states into the Union, but used this opportunity to expand the vision once more. Lincoln argued that in the war’s aftermath the nation should offer former slaves that had served in the Union Army (over 200,000) full rights of citizenship. This might seem a logical next step that would be non-controversial, but this was not the case in 1865. Lincoln knew he was setting the stage for another bitter political debate.
In the crowd that evening was a well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Later that evening Booth met with his fellow conspirators and announced, “that is the last speech that man will ever give”. Four nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, and the President died early the next morning, Good Friday. Sadly, the vision that Abraham Lincoln had created, evolved, and communicated to the nation would largely remain unrealized for the next hundred years. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s would the nation return fully to the ideals he had articulated. It remains a vision of equality and human dignity that we continue to strive for even today.
Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.