Koehn on Obama, Lincoln and Leadership

January 25, 2010

As usual, Nancy Koehn of HBS has some provocative insights into Obama’s leadership challenges, wrapped up in a rich historical package.   In a recent contribution to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, Koehn compares Obama’s challenges to the political, military and economic disasters threatening to overwhelm Lincoln at the end of his first year in office:

…the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party…concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president “lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command”); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war.  As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General,”The bottom is out of the tub…What shall I do?”

Koehn finds inspiration for the Obama Administration in Lincoln’s ultimate response:

What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862–with critically important consequences for the fate of the country–was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union–a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.

She closes by connecting the dots.  It’s good advice for anyone looking for their leadership mojo in a context of doubt and despair:

Barack Obama’s most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead — that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.

Showing Up

November 5, 2009


One of the most powerful acts of leadership is often the easiest to overlook:  the decision to remain standing.  As my obsession with Lincoln continues, I find that I’m most moved by his ability to simply endure.  Lincoln revealed a pattern of political brilliance, but he often chose the wrong spaces on the moral and military chessboard.  Those missteps arguably delayed a Union victory and weakened the movement to end slavery.

But the man showed up.  He showed up even when he was crippled by despair, even on days when his army was routed, his soldiers were sacrificed by mediocre generals, his country was burning, his children were dying, his wife was descending into madness, his political future was doomed, his life was threatened (Booth was not the first one to take a shot at him), and his God had seemingly forsaken him.

Lincoln made it into the office. Sometimes it was on the emotional equivalent of his hands and knees, but he managed to get back up, and that choice saved the fact and idea of America.  For all the talk of his strategic mind and silver tongue, Lincoln’s daily decision to stand may have been the one that made the difference.

These aren’t easy times.  The burden of leadership is weighing heavily on many people right now.  There are countless reasons to abandon the task, to retreat to a fetal position and fend for yourself.  Lincoln gives us a model for resisting that call. He challenges us to simply show up. On many days that will be enough.

Lessons from a Teenage Lincoln

January 13, 2009


My great concern is not whether you have failed, 

but whether you are content with your failure. 

– Abraham Lincoln

Like everyone else trolling for insight into the President-Elect’s political brain, I am joining the District of Columbia in brushing up on my Lincoln studies, starting with David Herbert Donald’s magnificent biography. Obama has made it clear that Abe tops his list of political mentors. Resurrecting the Team of Rivals is likely just the beginning. 

Lincoln the man has captivated the country since his improbable arrival on the national stage, for obvious reasons. Among his strengths was a remarkable ability to unleash the talent of other people, an ability that few other people with oval or any-other-shape offices have been able to match, and one that’s rising on the list of leadership essentials. Gone are the days when we could rely on a few wise men for national renewal, if we ever really could. Leadership today is a burden of the many. 

Lincoln the boy, I’m discovering, also has a surprising amount to teach us. Lincoln failed early and often and sometimes dramatically. As the life coaching industry has trumpeted for years, he stumbled painfully in business, politics and love. He had a difficult relationship with his father and fought his way through severe bouts of depression.

A widely circulated summary of his road to the White House looks something like this:

  • 1831-Lost job
  • 1832-Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833-Failed in business
  • 1834-Elected to Illinois State Legislature
  • 1835-Love of his life died
  • 1836-Nervous breakdown
  • 1839-Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843-Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846-Elected to U.S. Congress
  • 1848-Lost re-nomination
  • 1849-Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854-Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856-Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858-Defeated in second run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860-Elected President

Donald’s Lincoln prepares for this run by learning how to fail at a young age. He learns how to lose gracefully, to pull the insight out of setbacks, to start over without dragging too much of the past with him. He refuses to let failure cripple him, and he refuses to let his shortcomings reduce his extraordinary ambition. Young Abraham is a winner, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.  It’s a rare marriage of humility and audacity.