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Lincoln, Mandela and Obama: Lessons for Leaders Over Three Centuries

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I'm happy to be back breathing the hot and muggy-though-wonderfully-sea-level air of New York, having just returned from the Aspen Ideas Festival. There were, as usual, many great speakers, but one of the speeches that became the talk of the festival was by Nancy Koehn, a professor at the Harvard Business School. Though she teaches at the business school, Koehn is actually an historian and the speech, titled "Crisis Leadership: Lessons for Here and Now," was about lessons we can learn about leadership from the experiences of Abraham Lincoln and the explorer Ernest Shackleton. (You can watch the whole thing here.)

The speech was particularly poignant as the world is beginning to focus on Nelson Mandela's leadership, with regular updates on his health as he lies in critical condition at a hospital in South Africa.

The overall theme of Koehn's speech was about how leaders can find their "stronger, better selves in the midst of great crisis." And the quest for effective leadership is particularly intense now that, as Koehn put it, "turbulence is the new normal.... It's all around: it's social, it's technological, it's political, and it's geopolitical." And what that means is that "we need a new frame... a new operating system."

One thing we don't lack, however, is information. In this era of Big Data triumphalism, we are slowly realizing that raw information doesn't solve many problems. What we need, said Koehn, is wisdom, because "information... does not equal knowledge, and knowledge does not equal understanding, and understanding does not equal wisdom."

She then gave one of my favorite definitions of leadership, by the late novelist David Foster Wallace:

Effective leaders are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own selfishness and weaknesses and fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

"Aren't we searching like frisky pilgrims through the desert for that right here, right now?" she asked.

So what were the lessons of Lincoln and Mandela, two giants at helping their respective nations overcome the limits of selfishness and weakness? One who ended a civil war and one who prevented one from breaking out. And both who, in the end, kept their divided nations together.

One of the most important aspects of Lincoln, said Koehn, was "how he used his own knowledge of himself to grow and lead and have impact." She tells the story of Lincoln, as a young lawyer, learning how to become a good speaker. After opening up his law practice, he assumed he'd just be able to convince a jury relying on his speaking ability alone. But he soon realized that wasn't enough -- it would take more rigor and focus and prioritizing than that. So, as he told his law students, he'd focus his argument down to the two or three points most important to his case and zero in on those. This capacity to see his strengths and weaknesses from the outside and make adjustments was invaluable. "He had the ability to walk all around himself and his place," Koehn said.

And that ability -- to step outside of ourselves and the minute-to-minute turbulence of the moment -- is becoming harder not just for our leaders but for all of us. "I worry a little bit that our love affairs with our technology and our reactive default mode is keeping us from stepping away from who we are, what we're doing, how we might make a bigger commitment to something like goodness or to the higher road," Koehn said.

Too often, Koehn said, we want to find salvation in external tools, in the belief that we can outsource our responsibility and wisdom to technology. "We think often that the solution to what we need... is about the aids we have," she said. "Often it's our smartphone."

But that's not the answer. It's not about technology, Koehn said, "it's about the core -- it's about the center of who you are physically and emotionally." Our country is "so hungry for people whose core is strong." And both Lincoln and Mandela are obvious examples of leaders whose moral cores were not only strong but became stronger as the turbulence around them intensified.

It's not as if they didn't have doubts and fears about the path they were embarking on and the consequences of their decisions.

Likewise, Mandela was not free from fear, either. Rick Stengel, now the managing editor of Time, collaborated with Mandela on his book Long Walk to Freedom in 1994.

"Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island," wrote Stengel in 2008. "'Of course I was afraid!' [Mandela] would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. 'I can't pretend that I'm brave and that I can beat the whole world.'"

But they both managed to navigate what Koehn calls "the shaky floorboards of doubt" without falling through.

Koehn also very deliberately makes the point that once a leader has this extraordinary commitment to a cause, he can afford to be very flexible about the means used to fulfill that cause. This is something that both Lincoln and Mandela had in common.

Koehn talks about the "extraordinary strain" Lincoln was under by 1862, with generals he didn't trust, and a lack of will on the part of the North. After several Union defeats, he has his Damascus moment. "In that moment comes his leadership backbone," Koehn said, with Lincoln deciding, "I will save the Union -- I will save it with every single card I can play."

And one of those cards was the Emancipation Proclamation. Koehn tells how Lincoln marched into a cabinet meeting and said, in essence, "'Here gentlemen, I am going to present this to you. I don't want your advice on whether to do it; I've made up my mind. I want your advice on its presentation.' And he presents the Emancipation Proclamation."

And yes, at Seward's urging he delayed presenting it until after a Union victory -- but that was about tactics, not principle. And this commitment, this "promise of emancipation" that "must be kept," as Lincoln said in 1864, changed everything. "This whole new template, this whole new caste to the struggle to save the Union," Koehn said, "it opens the door to a brand new kind of covenant about these United States -- it changes all."

Flexibility in the service of commitment. "Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law," writes Bill Keller in the New York Times. "He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal."

This is how Stengel puts it:

For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His unwavering principle -- the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote -- was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.

Stengel also makes the point that, unlike Obama (and for that matter, Lincoln), Mandela was not a particularly good speaker. "People often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes," Stengel writes. "But it was the iconography that people understood... more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile."

Contrast that to the current moment. "Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life," writes Keller. "Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal." Mandela's charge to his fellow revolutionaries was that "you don't address their brains -- you address their heart."

Another key skill that Koehn identifies as crucial to crisis leadership -- and one that Lincoln was unparalleled in -- is the ability to "frame the stakes of the moment." Yes, there are currently many obstacles and entrenched interests standing in the way of solutions to our many crises right now -- just as there obviously were for both Mandela and Lincoln. But to lift the country over those obstacles, a leader has to tell the country, as Koehn put it, "where we came from, what we're doing right here right now, why we're doing it, and what it's costing us, what the trade offs are."

The U.S. is not facing such an obvious life or death moment as it was during the Civil War, or as South Africa was when it began dismantling apartheid in 1990 en route to its first elections four years later. But we're still in what Koehn calls a turbulent moment. We still have a disastrously high unemployment rate, and we're still facing up to a decade more of it before we hit something approaching full employment. And the jobs that are being created are too low-paying to support a family. The stakes of the current moment for the middle class and the continuation of the American Dream are huge -- but have the stakes been adequately framed?

The White House now seems to simply react to whatever comes over the transom, neglecting most of the time to appeal to our hearts. Timothy Egan, in the New York Times, contrasted the lack of urgency from the White House with the momentous decisions that came down from the Supreme Court last week:

In contrast to all this life-changing, work-defining, election-shaping Big Stuff, President Obama continues to give limp speeches and moan about how he can't get anything done with a Congress of Neanderthals and talk-radio spawn. An activist court, a passive president and a feeble Congress -- such is the current balance of power.

At home, the president continues to get his clock cleaned on the brutal sequestration cuts, a result of his pact with the aforementioned mindless Congress. Obama did not have enough muscle to marshal through something favored by 90 percent of the American people -- background checks to keep criminals and crazy people from getting guns.

Not to discount the forces arrayed against the president, but the roughly one million-member Confederate Army, and the entire state apparatus of the pre-democratic South African government were, we all would agree, pretty formidable.

Is immigration reform really the central cause of Obama's presidency right now? If it's not, what is? If it passes, or if it doesn't, what's next? The mere fact that this is in question is part of the problem.

The president was not able to personally meet with Mandela. But Mandela's leadership lessons will belong to the ages, just as Lincoln's leadership lessons do. Two very different men, but they shared the same defining qualities that we need in the 21st century. As Koehn put in the conclusion of her speech:

We need muscles of moral courage, we need to flex them, we need to find them, we need to help others recognize them and find them in themselves. Nothing more is needed and nothing less will do at this moment of great turbulence, great promise, great peril.