A Model of Real Bipartisanship and Leadership


The leadership lessons that can be gleaned from Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency are some of the most powerful available. He was even able to turn his enemies into friends.

On March 4, 1861, with the nation on the brink of civil war, Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office as president of the United States. On a temporary platform at the east end of the Capitol, he stood to address a crowd of over twenty thousand people, all of them filled with apprehension about the prospects of war. Lincoln put on his steel-rimmed glasses and with his manuscript in hand read in a clear, distinct voice his inaugural address.

The president spoke passionately about preserving the Union. Representing both the northern and southern states at the time, he said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection.”

Powerful words. But the picture of the man who read them wasn’t. He was a learned and somewhat presidential-looking lawyer from Illinois. A slender log of a man with rough-hewn features. Craggy nose. Gaunt cheeks. Not very impressive. Some, like Stanton, Lincoln’s political opponent in the election, even made fun of his physical appearance. For a lot of people, the unimpressive picture didn't match the impressive words.

Until after the election.

One by one, Lincoln filled his cabinet with men he trusted, men who not only understood his policies, but who were eager to implement them. When the day finally came for him to choose that most critical post of Secretary of War, the president chose Stanton. The uproar was immediate. His advisers tried to talk some sense into him. “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with the ugly things he’s said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your program. Have you thought this through, Mr. President?”

Lincoln’s reply was brusque. “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of all the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.”

Stanton, to his critics’ surprise, was outstanding in the role, serving the president and the nation with distinction. Several years later, when the war was over and Lincoln was assassinated, powerful words in praise of the president were spoken in sermons, speeches, and eulogies. None of the words, however, were as powerful as those Stanton spoke as he stood near the dead body of the man he had once hated. He referred to Lincoln as one of the greatest men who ever lived and closed his remarks by saying, “He belongs to the ages now.”

Lincoln lived his life trying to bring light and life to every relationship. Even his relationships with his enemies. He was often criticized for it. He spoke kindly not only to his enemies, but about his enemies. Overhearing Lincoln say a kind word about the South, an infuriated bystander confronted him about it. “Madam,” he answered, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Would that politicians—and bosses—and parents—and couples—and singles seek to show that kind of leadership today.

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