For people who know my background as a coach, speaker, and human potential specialist, they sometimes wonder why I am so fascinated with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. In addition to having a PhD in American History, I believe Abraham Lincoln to be one of the best examples of Intuitive Leadership, and the Gettysburg Address to be his shining moment.
Abraham Lincoln exemplified the idea that adversity is a powerful training ground for leaders. Very few leaders are admired because they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, never suffered any hardship, and lived happily ever after. Great leaders are built in the crucible of life by overcoming the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is certainly true of Lincoln.
Lincoln was born to subsistence farmers in Kentucky. As a young boy, they moved to Indiana. His mother died when he was 9. He had a difficult relationship with his father. He had less than a full year of formal education and performed manual labor for most of his youth. He left home as a young adult with no financial resources or family support. Historians have suggested that he suffered from any number of physical ailments, the most commonly cited being depression. His first love died before they could be married, which led him into a disastrous second engagement that ended badly. Afterward, he entered into his tumultuous courtship and marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Lincoln lost two of his four sons during his life—the third died shortly after his father. Only the oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, lived to adulthood. Edward Baker Lincoln passed away at age 3 in 1850. Soon, the Lincolns had William Wallace Lincoln, who died of typhoid fever at age 12 in 1862. The youngest, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, was born in 1853 and was his father’s joy and burden, especially after Willie’s death, when Mary Lincoln’s depression kept her from being a proper mother. Tad passed away in 1871 of tuberculosis.
Lincoln had almost no leadership experience. He was a self-educated country lawyer who hung out a shingle and rode the Illinois circuit. He served in the Illinois state legislature from 1834 to 1842, and had one uninspiring term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1846 to 1848. However, he never ran a corporation or held any other high office. He had no business experience, did not serve on boards or town councils.
Lincoln certainly was not a man born to privilege or used to an easy life. Yet he guided this country through the biggest crisis in its history. He did it because he understood what suffering felt like, he had developed empathy and emotional intelligence by overcoming these multiple adversities, and he relied on what he called “divine providence” to guide his most important decisions.
One of Lincoln’s greatest intuitive moments came with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War began over the cause of unity—keeping the nation together and bringing the South back into the fold. Although abolitionists in the North believed that the purpose of the war must also be to free the slaves, this was not an obvious objective in the spring of 1861. The foundational question was whether or not making the war about freedom would kill the chances of a negotiated peace with the South. Once it became obvious that no negotiated peace was going to happen, Lincoln began drafting a way to free the slaves using his authority as Commander in Chief.
When Lincoln announced this plan to his cabinet, his party, his family and his close advisors, very few thought it was a good idea. A couple of cabinet members supported it, along with the radical Republicans in Congress, but moderates were against it. His own wife criticized it. Yet Lincoln was clear. He had been moved by “divine providence to do this thing,” and he could not disobey.
This is the inner-directed wisdom of an intuitive leader. He cared about the relationships with his colleagues enough to get their advice, but he took action based on the inner guidance garnered by his own vision of the nation he wanted to create.
At Gettysburg, he brought that emotional intelligence and inner wisdom to bear to lay out a grand vision for the entire nation. Prior to Gettysburg, the primary question guiding the war for the Union was whether or not the Constitution allowed secession. This argument was a safe bet—it dealt with laws, documents, and rules. To talk about the issue of slavery and freedom threatened to go into the dangerous territory of passions, suffering, and the human conscience.
Yet Lincoln jumped into the fray with both feet in the Gettysburg Address. Asked to say a “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the first national cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln changed the conversation with his now-legendary opening line, “Four score and seven years ago….” That line put the date of the founding of the Republic at 1776—the year “our fathers” signed the Declaration of Independence, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He did not reference 1787, when the Constitution was written, or 1789, when it was ratified. By referring everyone back to the Declaration of Independence, he forced the issue that the meaning of this nation was liberty, not the legalese of perpetual union, cessation or laws.
Lincoln painted a grand vision of the nation he wanted to create. By using adversity to strengthen his emotional intelligence, practicing empathy, and casting a grand vision, Lincoln saved the Union, freed 4 million people, and redefined liberty for an entire nation. THAT is the power of Intuitive Leadership.