Lessons in Leadership from Lincoln (the movie)

Lessons in Leadership from Lincoln (the movie)


Leadership is a popular theme these days and in education it’s a hot topic for discussion. All schools are looking for ways to develop the leadership of their staff and pupils. This running deep within my veins, especially due to my work with Leader in Me schools throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

I’m always looking for inspiring stories on leadership. One of those is most certainly the Lincoln movie. I watched it in the cinema when it came out, but recently bought it for a few pounds online and watched it again. I found five lessons in leadership from Lincoln that apply to education that caught my immediate attention. I would love to share this with you and hopefully it will inspire you to see how you could utilize this within your (Leader in Me) school.

The Power of Story

A leader tells encouraging stories. Lincoln was a story teller, even in hard times during his presidency he continued to tell people powerful stories. This was how he made his point clear, he captivated his people. I personally thought the film showed strong examples of this, of course, there are genius writers and actors behind a Steven Spielberg movie, but still the lessons are there: if you want to get people to move for a higher purpose, enlightening stories that drives your point across is usually accepted a lot easier than a heated argument ever will.

The Power of Focus

A leader knows his priority. The movie takes place during the American Civil War. A time when slavery, or the abolition of slavery, divides the nation between North and South. The movie beautifully refers to it as ‘a test of modern democracy’. It was a man-to-man war with high casualties. Lincoln wanted peace and he wanted slavery to end. When temperaments are so high, how would he achieve this goal of his?

It’s quite genius in the way the film depicts how he transforms his dreams into reality. Lincoln has the vision to see through the situation. He keeps the big picture in mind and takes decisive action; it’s all about a change in the constitution before a certain date. The elections had just finished, and the current Members of Parliament were outgoing. They could therefore vote more with their hearts than with party discipline…

In the meantime, political life goes on in the Civil War. The everyday whirlwind continues. Peace appears to be close, but if so, the abolition of slavery would be further away. Taking this into account and his incomplete knowledge, he still knew what the one thing was that he needed to focus on – his single priority to move everything else forward. And a successful leader puts all his energy into the one thing that’s going to make the biggest difference.  

The Power of Agility

A leader never blindly follows his goal. The part in the story that resonated most was when Lincoln was accused of playing too many political games. He should follow his ‘inner compass’ more, according to some. He should take decisions that are simply morally right. Lincoln answers – how else – with a story; a compass show where the true north is, but not what you will encounter on your way there: swamps, mountains, enemies… if you want to reach the north, you will have to avoid them or push through or over them, and that requires a lot of agility. Lincoln was agile, he played political games. He walked a fine line which he possibly crossed occasionally – he was aware of that. He knew his limitations, but also challenged them, not for himself, but for his purpose.

The Power of Understanding

A leader is a people’s person too. I believe Steven Spielberg put some scenes in the movie that position Lincoln as more than a political strategist. He was a ‘people’ manager too. He knew where his power came from. Lincoln was also a jurist. The movie contains some wonderful legal speeches, especially one on the limitations of the democratic rights. But bottom-line, Lincoln knew his power was about the trust of the people. And, he understood the feeling and thoughts of his people. In his unique way, he demonstrated that he was a leader of high character and this inspired trust.

Noteworthy is also the relationship between Lincoln and one of his sons (who would sometimes just sit in the same room where the political meetings took place).

The Power of Sacrifice

A leader sacrifices. Lincoln had a dream, and he had the power to realise the dream. It sounds like a fairy tale, but he had to sacrifice heavily as a leader. The focus on his purpose and the hard navigation to lead a country in war have cost Lincoln a lot. Through the pressure of the Civil War and Lincoln’s work, Lincoln and his wife lost a child. The movie gives me the impression that this was medically preventable, and his wife was heavily traumatised by it.

Eventually Lincoln pays the ultimate price for his leadership: April 14th, 1865 (on Good Friday) he was assassinated.

Those were my five lessons. I could have written them down using the language of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. They are all in the movie. Like the ‘Circle of Influence’ and the proactive behaviour Lincoln demonstrates in the movie (Covey’s 1st habit). And of course, the strong ‘End in Mind’ (Covey’s 2nd habit) he lived with, let alone the ‘First things First’ mentality (Covey’s 3rd habit) Lincoln exhibited.

Lincoln was an exemplar of the fact that you can only be effective in relationships with others if you know what you stand for yourself. Covey readers will know what I’m talking about – the Public and Private Victory. The story possibly pinches my thinking on the 7 Habits too sometimes. How could synergy (ending the Civil War and slavery) only be possible with so many deaths. It all seems a great conversation to have with your students, where history and life skills could meet…

So here is my tip: Lincoln, the movie! Guaranteed to inspire healthy debate. Great acting. And of course, a Steven Spielberg movie must have fan-tas-tic music by John Williams.

Interesting Links

The Lincoln page on the site of the White House

The movie trailer

Written by Marcel Koning – Franklin Covey Regional Director Europe, Middle East, Africa

8 January 2019

By | 2019-01-08T13:59:39+01:00 8th January, 2019|Blog|