Thursday, January 29, 2015

Poetics for Abe Lincoln

“And Lincoln is charismatic even in death.”
Donald T. Phillips

My last few essays have been an excuse to feature a poem worth knowing at the end. Rounding off today’s piece is a poem about a “green pine” who went on to become the sixteenth U.S. president, and then, as we know, continued to grow in office. Even in Outer Mongolia, as Dale Carnegie reported in the nineteen thirties, some tribesmen had heard of Abraham Lincoln, and asked their guest for stories of him. In the mid-west of America, the chuckle goes that every year some college president retires and embarks on writing a book on Lincoln. And everywhere, of course, every nerd knows that Lincoln is the hero of a certain federation starship captain.

For such a stately figure, is there anything new to say? Actually, yes. I have a book on my “keeper” shelf that I won’t lend out: Lincoln On Leadership (1992) by Donald T. Phillips. Ahead of his time, Lincoln used techniques that management theorists didn’t even have a name for yet. If leadership is common sense, then I can only conclude that good sense is not very common.   

Lord knows politicians can be just as self-deluded—NOT what you want in a leader—as anybody else. In Canada, for instance, the federal government raised the salaries of the Members of Parliament (MP’s) to obscene levels because, they said, they thought they had to compete with the business world. Really? From the States, during the Reagan years, comes the story of a gathering of Chief Executive Officers and Vice Presidents for business training. The trainer asked, “How many of you voted for Ronald Reagan?” Every hand went up. “How many of you would put him in charge of your smallest factory or department?” Not a single hand was raised.

While some politicians, and maybe Reagan himself, may fantasize about being great managers, the reality today, according to a British observer, is that most of their man-hours are not spent in stretching their leadership skills, but merely going out fundraising and trying to get re-elected. The congressional lunchroom is becoming a ghost town. For that insight I am indebted to economist Edward Luce in his A Time To Start Thinking. (Archived October 2013 as America in Descent)

Abraham’s rare managerial ability is what makes him stand head and shoulders above other U.S. presidents—he was not a figurehead, not a legislator, but a leader… a leader who was the right man at the right time. Before him, the U.S. had five lame presidents in a row. After him, the office was never the same. Lincoln innovated new expanded powers for the “commander in chief.”

When Lincoln died the Secretary of War, Stanton, said, “He belongs to the ages now.” I am struck by how Lincoln’s ageless leadership is especially relevant to our generation. As you know, with the spread of computers (and inflation) business organizations are no longer pure pyramids as back in the time of the TV show Mad Men. (Madison Avenue) Now we speak of a “flattened pyramid,” with fewer managers. Another trend is that personal computers have led to an ever-increasing work from home, remote work, distributed work—call it what you will.

If there are fewer managers, and remoter managers, then today’s rank and file must be self-managers, having management’s goals, mission statement and vision statement glowing on the screen between their ears, rather than being a dull cog. (Of course some people still want to be cogs, see my essay The Borg Have Jobs archived January 2012)

Lincoln knew about vision. Lincoln On Leadership notes that, “Over time, as values decay and incentives dwindle, leaders must constantly provide a rejuvenating process… Lincoln strategically applied himself to this task. … and reminded all citizens why the United States was  formed in the first place, just as all leaders should remind subordinates why their organization was formed in the first place.”

I said Lincoln innovated his office. Today innovation is a trendy buzzword, a cliché. While we especially see the need for continual innovation in the computer-tech region, (Poor Blackberry) it is needed throughout the business world. When it comes to innovation, Lincoln, the only U.S. president to hold a patent, (for floating grounded boats) was far ahead of his contemporaries. Regarding weapons during the civil war, according to Phillips, “…he set up dozens of demonstrations in and around Washington that he personally attended. By doing so, he was acting as something of a one man research and development department.”

Of course, there are always some people who don’t get the memorandum to go innovate. In our day, Steve Jobs was disregarded and fired from Macintosh. In Lincoln’s day, the Chief of Ordnance, General Ripley, ignored Lincoln’s orders for 25,000 Marsh breechloaders. Two months later Lincoln ordered 10,000 Spencer repeating rifles, and this time Lincoln had his way. To us it seems so obvious that Spencers would be better than muskets, but innovation is seldom self-evident—or else it would have been done already.

I learned long ago that whenever I read about Lincoln I would find myself being inspired to rise to the better angel of my nature. And so I have memorized, not for school but as an adult, on my own, his visionary Gettysburg Address. I recited it one night at my University of Calgary Toastmasters club when we had a lack of speakers. On another night a not-so-young speed skater ended his speech by reciting the long list of Lincoln’s consistent failures before becoming the president. The young skater had considered “hanging up his skates” after he consistently failed to make the national or even his provincial team…and then went on to win internationally. My memory is suspect, so I won’t venture his name or achievement. Sorry. (This was before the Internet)

In the poem below, “but he didn’t stay” refers to how Lincoln only did one term in congress, because his constituents wouldn’t re-elect him. Luckily, Honest Abe managed to get a job as a frontier postmaster, and would carry “letters in his hat” until he met the addressee. His wife, although she was from the respected Todd family, lacked the social grace of being amiable. (At first she wanted to marry Lincoln’s great rival Douglas, but he wisely turned her down) His “cross wife” was so cross that Lincoln used to ride the legal court circuit, as a lawyer, for six months at a time to avoid home. She was so cross, the whole town marveled when the family finally managed to keep a servant: Today we know that Lincoln, unbeknownst to his wife, secretly paid the maid an extra dollar.

One of the first poems I ever memorized:

Abraham Lincoln
by Stephen Vincent Benet

Lincoln was a long man.
He loved the out of doors.
He loved the wind blowing
And the talk in country stores.

He liked telling stories,
He liked telling jokes.
“Abe’s quite a character,”
Said quite a lot of folks.

Lots of folks in Springfield
            Saw him every day,
Walking down the street
            In his gaunt, long way.

Shawl around his shoulders,
            Letters in his hat.
“That’s Abe Lincoln.”
            They thought no more than

Knew that he was honest,
            Guessed that he was odd,
knew he had a cross wife
            Though she was a Todd.

Knew he had three little boys
            Who liked to shout and play,
Knew he had a lot of debts
            It took him years to pay.

Knew his clothes and knew his
            “That’s his office, here.
Blame good lawyer on the whole,
            Though he’s sort of queer.

“Sure, he went to Congress, once,
            But he didn’t stay.
Can’t expect us all to be
            Smart as Henry Clay.

“Need a man for troubled times?
            Well, I guess we do.
Wonder who we’ll ever find?
            Yes — I wonder who.”

That is how they met and talked,
            Knowing and unknowing.
Lincoln was the green pine.
            Lincoln kept on growing.

Sean Crawford

~Honest Abe was involved in his war: He managed by walking around, now called MBWA, and he went to the telegraph office for news every day during battles.

~In contrast, as the nation’s first 21st century CEO, Bush couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag. There was no point in having speed-of-light communication when he did not have even a single White House person responsible full-time for covering his war on terror in Iraq. (Counter insurgency) Gentle Lincoln fired people, but Bush did not even reprimand anyone, not even the staff who forever dirtied Colin Powell’s reputation by leading him down the outhouse path for weapons of mass destruction. (WMD)


  1. I am still learning......thanks! Cheers!

  2. Cheers!
    I remember a science fiction novel which ended with the hero, on a planet full of wonders, saying to his girlfriend, a stay-at-home type who had left to follow him, that they will have to keep learning. The last line was her saying, "Isn't that what we're for?"