As a fervent admirer of Abraham Lincoln who has read most of the major biographies of his life and career, I accompanied my wife Barbara to our local cinema yesterday to see the film “Lincoln” with some trepidation, expecting, despite many glowing reviews, to be disappointed. After all, Lincoln, who has long been an American icon, was a tremendously complex human being who couldn’t easily be captured on film, and I was afraid I’d be seeing the heroic Lincoln carved in stone at his majestic memorial in Washington, rather than the real man. The man I’ve come to know through my reading was a tremendously ambitious and highly successful trial attorney who reveled in the nitty-gritty of electoral politics and, although he was, indeed, a man of principle, his principles without question evolved over time, and to achieve them he was always willing to compromise – never confusing the means with the ends. He was also the man who told funny – often very earthy and off-color – stories to make complex points and relieve tension in the policy making process. I need not have feared. “Lincoln” is a wonderful film that I’d happily see again – and again. I can’t imagine a better written script or a more effective portrayal of Lincoln than Daniel Day-Lewis’s. This is a film that will be seen and appreciated fifty years from now.
An aspect of Lincoln’s character that I really admire and that helped to make him a highly successful national chief executive comes through in this remarkable film – what I call “true humility.” Truly humble leaders like Lincoln embody seemingly contradictory traits that enable them to achieve phenomenal results. On the one hand, the truly humble leader is, like Lincoln, highly ambitious – aiming to achieve significant results – fundamentally self-confident, and bull-dog tenacious. This is definitely not a wimpy leadership model. But at the same time, the truly humble leader, like Lincoln, possesses the kind of healthy ego that doesn’t need to win every battle or beat others into submission on every point. And as Joyce Kearns Goodwin so well demonstrates in her excellent study of Lincoln and his Cabinet, Team of Rivals, Lincoln’s robust but healthy ego never demanded being surrounded by a coterie of worshipful acolytes. On the contrary, Lincoln was so fundamentally self-confident that he was able to enlist the services – the knowledge, expertise, diverse perspectives, and political capital – of a Cabinet that included men who were harsh critics of his policies and political competitors who, disdaining (and underestimating) this prairie lawyer with his frontier twang and folksy stories, were waiting in the wings to replace him. .
Today, as I read the latest accounts of progress in averting our nation’s possible fall off the so-called “fiscal cliff,” I can’t help but feel we could use a huge dose of Lincoln-like true humility in Washington, DC these days!