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    January 16, 2009

    Lincoln's wisdom of leadership

    Posted by: Andoni

    Lincolnstatue2 OK, so I went out and bought Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" after it became clear that Barack Obama was trying to emulate Abraham Lincoln in this respect. I'm about 3/4 of the way through this 800 page tome and highly recommend it for new insights into Lincoln as well as possible insights into Obama's modus operandi.

    Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever seen, but one trait from the book that struck me was that Lincoln was not usually on the cutting edge of the great progressive causes of his day -- until the timing was right.

    He is remembered as the great emancipator and terminator of slavery in the U.S., but he was not a strong proponent of either movement as they were building strength and volume. He joined and then acted when the timing was right.

    As with any progressive movement there are activists who are agitated and want immediate change. They scream loudly but with little effect. When these big movements eventually do succeed, these people are not usually the ones remembered as much as the leader who actually jumped on the wagon at the right moment and escorted the sought-for change.

    Take same sex marriage for instance. Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry is associated with this cause since his early efforts in Hawaii in the 1990's and has been a mover and shaker ever since. However, when gay marriage finally becomes a reality on the national level, it will be the Supreme Court justice or the president who makes it happen who will be remembered best. And most likely that person will not will have been an active gay marriage advocate all along. As they say, timing is everything.

    Barack Obama is not a strong supporter of gay marriage. It appears that he was a stronger advocate in the past ---before he ran for U.S. Senate or for president. Lincoln did the same thing on the most controversial issues of his day. He was a more vocal opponent of slavery years before his run for the presidency, but became more cautious in his rhetoric the closer he got to the presidency and even in his first two years as president. When the time was right, and he knew he could win that battle, he took a very strong position however, against slavery and the rest is history.

    During this period of being publicly cautious and not revealing their stronger internal positions, both Lincoln and Obama, at least leaned more toward the morally correct position.

    A good leader cannot get too far out in front of the public. Lincoln himself said that he could not have successfully issued his emancipation proclamation even six months earlier than he did. The public wasn't ready yet and it would have failed.

    A good leader while simultaneously not getting too far ahead of the public, uses his office to bring the public closer to his position by educating them and leading them there. Lincoln was great at this with his speeches and letters to the nation.

    If a leader is too far ahead of the nation, he cannot make that change and fails.... no matter how moral that position is. Think Bill Clinton and "Don't ask, don't tell."

    Two of Lincoln's contemporaries observed his leadership style. Leonard Swett wanted Lincoln to immediately propose a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Lincoln refused and replied that he could see a "time coming" for a constitutional amendment and whoever "stands in its way, will be run over by it" but that the country was not ready just yet. Swett later wrote that the secret to Lincoln's leadership was "by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results."

    John Forney, a news reporter at the time, put it another way. Lincoln was "the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them."

    I believe this is the way that it is with Obama and same sex marriage at the moment. Now is not quite the right moment for Obama to take up same sex marriage. It would be a premature struggle that would end as badly as Clinton's trying to lift the ban on gays  in the military.

    However, I bet that when the timing is right, Obama will jump on recognizing same sex marriage at the federal level and it will be historic. The timing isn't quite right yet. I don't know when it will be right, but I bet it's coming soon.



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    1. JLG on Jan 17, 2009 1:06:30 AM:

      You are probably right that the time is not right. However, in fairness we should probably note the advice of another political figure that Obama has emulated-- one who arguably did more good.

      "I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

      – Martin Luther King, writing from jail in Birmingham Alabama, 1963

      Just a thought.

    1. Andoni on Jan 17, 2009 6:47:20 AM:

      You are right.

      However, King was the activist, the agitator that I speak of. They are the idealists who see and speak the truth from the beginning. They are the ones who over a long period of time move public opinion to make sure that the arc eventually bends in the right direction over time. They are usually associated with only one cause. Yes, they are leaders, but they are seldom successful elected political leaders.

      A good political leader has many causes to oversee and that's where timing comes in handy - knowing which one to put forward at what time. If he only has one cause and it isn't making progress or fails, then he isn't a leader for too long.

      King was a great leader, but he wasn't an elected political leader.

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