Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Leadership Lessons from Lincoln: Contemplate, Decide and Move Forward

As I mentioned previously, I discovered in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals myriad leadership lessons. One of the most powerful leadership lessons I gleaned from Lincoln's life as detailed by the author can be found in Lincoln's decision making process. At one point in Lincoln's career, one of his adversaries accused him of waffling on an issue. Lincoln was able to respond immediately and decisively with a steadfast denial because Lincoln habitually approached decisions (and positions) with a slow, steady process of weighing all evidence before proceeding with an action or a decision, or taking a stance or position on an issue.

Lincoln showed great patience in nearly every situation (occasionally to a fault), and his apparent inaction often maddened even his closest advisors. What people perceived as inaction actually was, for Lincoln, an often agonizing internal struggle to find the truth, the "right" course of action, or at least the best of all possible options. Lincoln worked diligently to seek counsel from those he trusted most as well as opposing viewpoints from challengers. Lincoln frequently spent long afternoons and restless nights wrestling with the evidence or the issue at hand because he rarely underestimated the gravity of his decisions, not to mention the potential consequences of making poor or unwise decisions.

After Lincoln reached a conclusion, he stood behind his decision and refused to waver. Lincoln did the hard work ahead of time, in the deliberation stage of the decision making process. He expended huge amounts of mental and emotional energy on the front end, so to speak, to think through all possible outcomes. This allowed Lincoln to confidently move on after making a decision without looking back and second-guessing himself. In my opinion, this is a most desirable quality for leaders for two reasons. First, a leader who works hard on the front end can display confidence both at the time of the decision (or action) and after the decision (or action) has been made. Second, those who work with such a leader can trust that there will be no waffling, no flip-flopping or change of mind after a decision has been made. Even opponents who disagree with a particular decision of such a leader can be confident that things won't change and they can move on, too.

I have endeavored to practice this process and I found it reaffirming and validating that Lincoln approached decisions in this manner. I have worked with leaders in the past who made hasty decisions, weighed in too quickly on important issues, or hired too swiftly, and then found themselves (along with the rest of us on the team) scrambling to deal with the aftermath and doing damage control. Simply put, that's no way to run an organization and no one wants to follow a leader who works that way. When dealing with both short-term and long-term effects of decisions in the lives of students, I believe we owe it to our stakeholders to approach major decisions with the patience and tenacity of Lincoln.

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