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 Abraham Lincoln brought to bear in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The piece is excerpted from her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Today I conclude this series which has explored her article and how the modern-day business leader and Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) can still learn many lessons from our 16thPresident.

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 CCO can draw upon?

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.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018