The leader and the moment

June 30, 2008, 3:35 PM UTC

Consider this:

  • In the summer of 1860, there was a persistent, growing unease among Americans about the road the nation had traveled in recent years. All knew that the country was entering a critical moment in its history, that the stakes were somehow very high.
  • In the middle of that year, a tall, lanky and pragmatic lawyer came out of Illinois to become the nominee for president of a major political party.
  • A year before, virtually no one expected him to become the nominee.
  • His administrative work consisted of managing a two-person law office. His total government work amounted to three terms in the Illinois state legislature and two years in Congress.
  • Many observers focused on the man’s paucity of experience in the corridors of national power. Doubt about his ability to deal with a potential crisis spread quickly.

Despite all this, Abraham Lincoln’s past turned out to be a poor guide to his leadership as president. Yes, he stumbled badly on several occasions. And yes, privately, he was frequently anxious about the outcome of a war that became, he said, “fundamental and astounding.”

Moments of doubt test and shape every leader. In Abraham Lincoln’s case, several factors unrelated to his resume determined his ability to meet the challenges. The first was Lincoln’s ability to see his own significance on a larger stage. Another was his suppleness — fire generals, rehire them, teach yourself military strategy. A third factor was his commitment to framing the stakes of the larger moment — what was at issue, what were the tradeoffs, why did it matter?

A final and critical aspect was Lincoln’s thoughtfulness — not only in the public choices (and speeches) he made, but also in the late-night conversations he had with himself about the ultimate meaning and worth of what he was doing.

In all these ways, the man met the moment. And both were profoundly affected.

Nancy F. Koehn, an authority on business history, is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is currently working on a book about the most important leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln and another on social entrepreneurs.