I made a rare trip to a movie theater recently to see the Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln. Having read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln a few years back, I was curious to see how Spielberg, who acquired the movie rights before the book was ever written, would treat the book and President Abraham Lincoln and his interaction with his Cabinet and with Congress.

If you’ve read the book and are expecting a visual rehash of it, you will be disappointed. But if you want to see a close-up view that in many ways summarizes Goodwin’s book and some real quintessential leadership moments from President Lincoln in the last four months of his life, this is the movie to watch.

Lincoln is one of those rare movies that I had to spend time processing on a lot of different levels. It is a heavy and intense movie, but very rich in things to think about and lessons to learn.

I will do my best not give away any spoilers here, but I would like to highlight the quintessential-leadership-in-action aspects of the movie. 

The primary subject of the movie is the all-out effort, spearheaded by President Lincoln, to get the 13th Amendment – which abolished slavery – to the U.S. Constitution passed by the House of Representatives by January 31, 1865 (just before the newly-elected representatives took office). In the backdrop are the last and equally-blood days of the Civil War, a possible negotiated peace with the Confederacy, and the outer and inner turmoil of the many burdens President Lincoln found himself encumbered with.

One of the quintessential leadership traits that made President Lincoln stand head and shoulders above everyone else was his ability to communicate vision. For an in-depth look at this quintessential leadership trait in President Lincoln and three other well-known public figures, you can purchase the downloadable eBook, “Communicating Vision,” from my store.

Another quintessential leadership trait that President Lincoln had was the ability to see the big picture and to stay committed to that goal, no matter what. President Lincoln understood that abolishing slavery was the underlying action that needed to be done to begin the path to ending the Civil War and start the slow – and still-not-completed – path toward the equality of all people the preamble to the US Constitution covers and refers to.

Lincoln shows how heavily this focus and determination weighed on President Lincoln and it also shows the strength of his commitment in the face of constant attempts to undermine and derail the goal.

Another quintessential leadership trait that President Lincoln had was respect for everyone, even his most fierce opponents, and his willingness to seek input from and listen to people outside of Washington and politics. By showing respect to everyone, President Lincoln was able to gain keen insights into what his policies and legislation would mean and look like in practice. 

One of the most moving scenes in the movie is when General Robert E. Lee leaves the Appomattox home of Wilmer and Virginia McClean after signing the documents of surrender with General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant and the Union army members who are with him all gather on the porch to watch General Lee leave. They show their respect for General Lee, no doubt at the urging of President Lincoln, by simultaneously removing their hats in a gesture of deference to General Lee.

Another quintessential leadership trait that President Lincoln had was the ability to fight when he had to, but always with an eye to conciliation and making the outcome win-win, if possible. One of the prime examples of this in the movie is his pardoning of a young Confederate soldier, when President Lincoln says “I don’t want to hang a boy for being frightened. What good would it be for him?”

President Lincoln also possessed the quintessential leadership trait of strategic planning accompanied by flexibility and adaptability. He understood that planning is critical to success, but the plan cannot possibly see all the twists and turns and contingencies that will crop up during its execution and quintessential leaders must be equipped to handle those deftly and swiftly without impeding or halting progress. President Lincoln’s quote on this subject should be something we all think about often: “The compass points you true north but does not warn you of obstacles and swamps along the way.”

Another quintessential leadership trait that President Abraham Lincoln possessed was that he never stopped learning. There is an intriguing scene in the movie where he takes a mathematical concept from a book he’d read and applied it in a philosophical way as an explanation for why what was important to him was so important.

Quintessential leaders must be life-long students and spend time reading widely and well. This means reading outside the scope of our skills, abilities, and fields of work. There are so many things that can enhance our abilities as quintessential leaders and help us gain different perspectives and angles on the bigger issues we face each day as leaders. Don’t waste your time on anything that isn’t going to enhance your knowledge and understanding so that you become a more quintessential leader.

President Lincoln set an example of quintessential leadership when he assembled teams. First among these was his Cabinet, which included William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Simeon Cameron, and Edward Bates. All of these men had been Abraham Lincoln’s rivals in the 1860 U.S. presidential race. President Lincoln had a chance to evaluate their strengths – and the support that including each of them on the team would bring to his presidency – and, in what is widely considered an improbable stroke of genius, brought them together as a team of allies when he won the presidential election.

President Lincoln did a lot of team-building – often one-on-one and in very personal ways that showed he was a careful listener and observer with the intent of trying to understand what was important to other people and why they did and thought and believed what they did – outside of the White House as well. It’s surprising, especially in Goodwin’s book, to see some of the teams that President Lincoln forged in Washington and in Congress, with a level of diversity and complexity that only a quintessential leader could have brought and kept them together.

I strongly recommend Lincoln. It gives us quintessential leaders a lot of food for thought and hopefully it will help us to redouble our efforts to acquire and hone not only the quintessential leadership traits that President Lincoln had (and these certainly are not all of them), but also the other quintessential leader traits that we have already discussed and the ones we will discuss in the future.

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