Lincoln and Transformative Leadership

Thomas Fox

Thomas Fox - Compliance Evangelist

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Doris Kearns Goodwin has an article entitled Lincoln and the Art of Transformative Leadership. In this piece she detailed the leadership skills that Lincoln brought to bear in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The piece is excerpted from her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.

In this piece, I will discuss her article and how the modern-day business leader and Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) can still learn many lessons from our 16th President. 

Lincoln initially circulated his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at a July 1862 Cabinet meeting. However this was not an opportunity for the Cabinet to debate the change in policy towards slavery for that matter was settled in Lincoln’s mind. As Goodwin asked, “What enabled Lincoln to determine that the time was right for this fundamental transformation in how the war was waged and what the Union was fighting for?” She responded that Lincoln had a steadfast of emotional intelligence; including “empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline and generosity of spirit. These qualities proved indispensable to uniting a divided nation and utterly transforming it”.

What are the lessons a business leader and Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) can draw?

Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change

For Lincoln, the first 18 months of the war were an unmitigated disaster for the Union. After the initial route at 1st Bull Run, came the Peninsula Campaign and the near capitulation of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Goodwin quoted Lincoln “Things had gone from bad to worse, until I felt we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operation we had been pursuing; that we had played our last card and must change our tactics.”

The full scope of the Emancipation Proclamation was summed up in concluding sentence which said that as of January 1, 1863 “all persons held as slaves…shall then, thenceforward and forever be free.” This overturned over 80 years of legislation, Supreme Court rulings and all other laws which had governed the country. It was as great as any other transformation in American history. 

Look at almost any corporate scandal; from Wells Fargo to Volkswagen to Uber and you inevitably see senior management making a similar statement: it was a (very) few bad apples, i.e. rogue employees, who engaged in the nefarious behaviors. It is inevitably when the senior management that led, allowed or encouraged the behavior is replaced that real change can begin. That is because they always acknowledge that the old policies were the reason for the scandal and corporate failure. 

It can be as dramatic as one of the above corporate failures and scandals. However perhaps the larger lesson is to learn from your mistakes. I recently interviewed Amy Much, the Ethics & Compliance Officer at Under Armor, for a podcast. The topics was how compliance practitioners should learn from their mistakes and move on to solutions. This is a key point which I write about often. What are the lessons to be learned? Did you learn them and did you apply them going forward?

Here Lincoln certainly did. 

Anticipate contending viewpoints

While Lincoln’s mind was made up, he did invite full and robust discussion from each Cabinet Secretary, as he had done throughout his administration. The team of rivals was not in place as sycophants to rubber stamp his decisions based upon some notion of loyalty. Rather Lincoln actively sought out the best and the brightest for his cabinet. He then sought out their opinions and consider them in forming his own final decisions. Through this process he was ready and able to address concerns raised by Secretaries about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Some Secretaries wanted immediate implementation down to those who said it would not only lengthen the war but reinvigorate the South to fight to down to the last man. However, Lincoln had carefully considered each position and was ready with a response. Yet even at this point, he allowed each Secretary to submit written comments. All of this demonstrates the power of listening in leadership. Lincoln listened to the debates up until the time he penned the Emancipation Proclamation and then was ready when each Secretary raised those same or similar issues in the context of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For the CCO or business leader, this means you must do your research and be prepared to directly answer questions about your initiative. But there is a deeper lesson Lincoln provides and Goodwin highlights. It is the need to listen. Of all the skills a good leader needs, it is that of listening. By listening to the debates of his army of rivals in the Cabinet, Lincoln was able to anticipate the objections and meet them head on with a forceful rebuttal. He did not simply take the position that I am the President and I know what is best or you must do as I say. His listening skills gave him the data to formulate responses. 

Know when to fold ‘em; know when to hold ‘em

OK the above line came in from Kenny Rogers The Gambler not Goodwin but the thought is still the same. Goodwin said, “Know when to hold back, know when to move forward.” This issue came to the fore on the timing of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln considered. The summer of 1862 was in many ways the nadir for the Northern cause. As noted above, the Peninsula Campaign had been but a near disaster for the Union. General McClellan was claiming he had saved the Army of the Potomac, largely from the ineptitude of the politicians (read: Lincoln) in retreating all the way across Virginia. 

When he initially submitted the Emancipation Proclamation to the Cabinet, Secretary of State William Seward had said, “The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reversals is so great, our last shriek, on the retreat.” It is far preferable to wait “until the eagle of victory takes its flight” and then “hang your proclamation around its neck.”” Lincoln took this counsel and waited. He waited until General Lee invaded the North, which led to Battle of Antietam. Goodwin wrote, “with some 23,000 dead, was the bloodiest single day of combat in American history. Overwhelming carnage left both sides in a paralytic stupor. This nightmare was not the resounding victory Lincoln had hoped and prayed for, but it proved sufficient to set his plan in motion. No sooner had the news of Antietam reached him than he revised the preliminary draft of the proclamation. Only five days after the “victory,” on Monday, September 22, he once again convened the cabinet.”

This timing played an important part in the success of the announcement. Moreover, as Goodwin noted, “If the members of this most unusual team—a microcosm of the disparate factions within the Union itself—were unable to coalesce at this critical juncture, there would be small chance of binding the country at large.” For the CCO or business leader, this point stresses the need to consider the timing of a major announcement or initiative. What else is going on at your organization that might positively impact your initiative? Further, consider the impact of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on how the Battle of Antietam was and still is viewed. By making the dramatic announcement; it was a clear signal of how Lincoln and the entire Union viewed the outcome of the battle. 

Set an example

Lincoln allowed full and robust discussion by his team of rivals within the confines of his Cabinet. Goodwin asked, “How was it possible to coordinate these inordinately prideful, ambitious, quarrelsome, jealous, supremely gifted men to support a fundamental shift in the purpose of the war?” She believes, “The best answer can be found in Lincoln’s compassion, self-awareness, and humility. He never allowed his ambition to consume his kindheartedness, quoting Lincoln, “So long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

Moreover, Lincoln allowed robust debate in his Cabinet but he would not allow personal attacks. Goodwin noted, “The standards of decorum he demanded were based on the understanding that they were all involved in a challenge “too vast for malicious dealing.” This sense of common purpose had guided the formation of the cabinet and would now sustain its survival.” While the work of a CCO does not rise to the level of Lincoln’s Cabinet during the Civil War; Goodwin’s larger point is that you must not only demand civility but also model such civility at all times. 

This is beyond the Triple C Rule for CCOs, that one must stay calm, cool and collected, because all company employees, up and down the chain, are watching the CCO. The Triple C’s are important because organizations look to the CCO to solve complex issues with simple solutions. When faced with a compliance issue or an obstacle you should endeavor to keep everything on an even keel and never let them see you sweat. Lincoln added the mandate of civility. While many corporations strive for such civility, a CCO should be the one who leads that behavior. 

Understand the emotional needs of the team

This is an area that Lincoln not only excelled in but also was far ahead of his time. He understood the emotional needs of each of his Cabinet members and worked to meet those needs. For instance, Secretary of State William Seward was both erudite and cosmopolitan but had also expected to win the GOP nomination and then become the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln treated him as first among equals and made sure Seward understood how important he was to Lincoln. Not wanting to show favoritism he bestowed similar attention on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who even though was prickly at the best of times, Lincoln visited with him often to help assuage the mighty pressure Stanton had on him as the chief architect of the war. 

Yet each of the other Cabinet secretaries received attention tailored to their personalities. He understood how far a compliment could go to impact his person. Regarding the particularly abrasive Attorney General Salmon Chase, who “often chafed under Lincoln’s authority, he acknowledged that “the President has always treated me with such personal kindness and has always manifested such fairness and integrity of purpose, that I have not found myself free to throw up my trust…so I still work on.”

While this might seem like one of the most basic leadership skills it is well worth noting that Lincoln did this at a time when such leadership skills were not all that common. Moreover, for the current CCO or business leader it also speaks to how you should treat your team members. Once again it all begins with listening and finding what they need or even more importantly want. Never forget how far a well-placed, public compliment can go to aid in fostering a relationship. 

Let go of the past

Even if someone has slighted you in the past, it is in the past and you should not be focused on the past. Of course there are those who will have attacked you in the past and will continue to do so, if only because they are incapable of doing anything else. Yet as a CCO and business leader, you must move beyond this simple dynamic. In the case of Lincoln, his initial meeting with Stanton had proven decisive, as Stanton had dismissed him as a country bumpkin lawyer in a major case they worked on together. Lincoln’s appearance had so put Stanton off that he did not even bother to read the brief Lincoln had prepared on the case. 

Yet with the stinging rebuke, Lincoln watched Stanton in the courtroom, studied him and at the end learned from him. When Lincoln was considering his Cabinet, he recognized that Stanton’s skills and temperament were far different from his and that difference would be a valuable addition to the Cabinet and war effort. Stanton’s private secretary had noted, “They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized that they were a necessity to each other.”

As a CCO you are much better served by having viewpoints different to your own. There were two men no more different than Lincoln and Stanton. Yet they work together meshed in Lincoln’s Cabinet. You should work to not only have different perspectives on your team but simply because you had a disagreement with someone in the past, it does not mean the dispute must continue for all-time. In fact one clear leadership skill is forgiveness. When you add reconciliation, you have powerful engagement tool. 

Temper, temper, temper

Lincoln was well known as President for controlling his temper. He would often write letters with no intention of sending them, if only to get an issue off his chest. Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln would fling off what he called a “hot” letter, releasing all his pent wrath. He would then put the letter aside until he had cooled down and could attend to the matter with a clearer eye. When his papers were opened at the beginning of the 20th century, historians discovered a raft of such letters, with Lincoln’s notation underneath: “never sent and never signed.”

In the modern day the same can be said of email. The only caution I would raise is to make certain you do not accidently send on any ‘hot’ email you write out to get an issue off your chest. Lincoln also counseled his Cabinet to do the same, write something out but not send it. It can be a powerful tool.

Protect colleagues from blame

Goodwin noted an outstanding example from Lincoln in his “public defense of Stanton after McClellan attributed the Peninsula disaster to the War Department’s failure to send sufficient troops. A vicious public assault upon Stanton ensued, with subsequent calls for his resignation.” In a public rally after the disastrous campaign, Lincoln said, ““The Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving what he had none to give.” Then, as the applause mounted, Lincoln continued: “I believe [Stanton] is a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.”” Goodwin said, “Lincoln’s robust and dramatic defense of his beleaguered secretary summarily extinguished the campaign against Stanton.”

It is axiomatic in the compliance world that any CCO should work to not only deflect blame from their subordinates but also protect them from blame, even if it means taking it yourself, as Lincoln did. While there are many in the corporate world who engage in blame deflection to subordinates, a CCO cannot be one of those persons. Moreover, while many chief executives will claim that it was only a few ‘bad apples’ which may have engaged in bribery and corruption to sustain a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violation, a CCO must create a compliance program which will prevent, detect and then remediate.

Keep your word

Rather amazingly, given what we know now, there was a large part of the North that did not believe Lincoln would actually release the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. They had failed to consider not only his iron will once his mind was made up but also once he gave his word, it was not to be taken back. Goodwin quoted the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who said “Lincoln was not a man “to reconsider, retract, and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed.” Correctly, he judged that Lincoln would “take no step backward,” that “if he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word.”

Obviously a CCO must keep their word. While you can channel your inner Keynes and change your mind when presented with new facts, if your word is not good; it will reflect on the entire compliance and ethics effort in your organization. It can even negatively impact your overall corporate culture. 

Gauge sentiment

The above point blends directly into this point as Lincoln would make changes in policy when sentiment or circumstance required it. In his final reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to the Cabinet, he included language around enlisting of black soldiers, which had not been present in his original draft. He had originally feared such language would be too divisive. However public outcry in the North was for the enlistment of black soldiers to fight against the slave holding South. Such sentiment prevailed. 

This points to an ongoing skill for any CCO or business leader - listening. Listen to your constituencies and stakeholders and take their comments into consideration. For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation energized the Union armies, which was clearly a stakeholder but one he had not focused upon. As a CCO, you may well find that many of your stakeholders want your company to be run more fairly, with institutional justice and fairness. Gauge that sentiment and use it. 

Establish trust

Goodwin wrote, “The response of the troops [to the Emancipation Proclamation] was grounded in the deep trust and loyalty Lincoln had earned among rank-and-file soldiers from the very beginning of the war. In letters they wrote home, accounts of his empathy, responsibility, kindness, accessibility, and fatherly compassion for his extended family were commonplace. They spoke of him as one of their own; they carried his picture into battle. Such was the credibility that Lincoln had established with them that it was no longer a question of fighting solely for the Union. “If he says all Slaves are hereafter Forever Free,” wrote one soldier, “Amen.” Another confessed that he had “never been in favor of the abolition of slavery” but was now “ready and willing” to fight for emancipation. A new direction had been set and accepted.”

Everything you do as a CCO or business leadership work towards you establishing trust, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) might say “from the Board room to the shop floor.” The CCO position is largely one of persuasion and the key to using that position is to build trust with all the stakeholders, both internal and external. 

I hope you have enjoyed this three-part series on President Lincoln. The leadership lessons from Lincoln continue to resonate today and present clear guidance for any CCO or business leader. However perhaps the most important lesson is that no matter how bad the leaders who preceded him were, Lincoln overcame them, albeit at great cost. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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