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. Over the next few blog posts, I will be exploring 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 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 1stBull 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 interview 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 Gamblernot 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.

The leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln continue to resonate today. They present clear guidance for any CCO or business leader. I hope you will join me tomorrow when I continue my exploration of them through Goodwin’s article.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018