Sunday, March 10, 2013

Leadership Lessons from Lincoln: The Importance of Accessibility

One of the finest compliments I've heard about a leader in the last several months went something like this: "He always stops to speak or to listen, no matter where he's going or what's on his schedule. He probably has to be somewhere right now, but he's stopping to speak to someone who wants some of his time." This may seem insignificant unless you've ever worked with or for someone who simply was inaccessible.

One of Lincoln's greatest strengths, though to his cabinet it appeared to be a weakness at times, was his desire to greet and welcome all comers.  As Doris Kearns Goodwin explained in her epic Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals, Lincoln regularly opened the doors to the White House and entertained visitors from all walks of life. Of course he entertained diplomats, politicians and generals on numerous formal occasions, but Lincoln also welcomed the common folk, the true stakeholders of the nation. One after another they filed in day after day to shake the President's hand, wish him well or present a concern about a matter. Lincoln smiled at each and made each visitor feel as important as a foreign dignitary. The same can be said about Lincoln's commitment to correspondence by mail. Though he didn't answer each letter himself, he employed a secretary who responded to countless pieces of mail during his years in the highest office in the land. Lincoln's cabinet members eventually intervened and pointed out that Lincoln's time, especially during crisis, perhaps could have been devoted to other more pressing concerns. They simply didn't understand why he continued to meet and greet on such a grand scale.

Lincoln knew, however, that by making himself accessible not only to well-wishers and fans but also to grumblers and complainers he made every one of the constituents he met feel valued and connected to the political process. No longer did Lincoln seem like a lofty figure hidden away in an ivory tower casting decisions and policies down upon the lowly people. Rather, Lincoln seemed much more like a leader in touch with his constituents, more like a leader who genuinely heard and understood the cares and concerns of those he governed.

Educational leaders could learn quite a bit from Lincoln's example. An educational leader who hides away in an office and never mixes and mingles with stakeholders undoubtedly will create the perception of an out-of-touch leader who has forgotten what life in the trenches is like. A principal who never visits classrooms, a superintendent who never meets teachers to ask how the year is going, a department chair who never asks what teachers' needs are, a principal who never walks the halls to speak with students, a dean of students who never follows up and asks if things are going better in carpool or in the cafeteria - all examples of educational leaders who run the risk of becoming entirely out of touch. Giving stakeholders time and a listening ear requires a sacrifice of both time and energy, certainly, but a leader who will make that sacrifice will find himself surrounded by stakeholders who are more likely to follow him and, if necessary, perhaps even make sacrifices of their own for him or his cause.

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