Thanks to Steven Spielberg and his film Lincoln, we’ve been hit by a new wave of management wisdom supposedly gleaned from the film’s central character. Business Week ran a piece titled “Career Lessons from Spielberg’s Lincoln.” The New York Times called theirs “Lincoln’s School of Management.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book on Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, famously provided the basis for some of the movie, has been back on the “leadership advice” circuit.
“Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations,” Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, told The New York Times. So what can today’s corporate managers learn from Lincoln’s example?
“Lincoln never made permanent enemies,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said in a recent post-Spielberg talk. She forgot to add, “except for the five million white people in the Confederacy.” And John Wilkes Booth.
Business Week’s number-one Lincoln lesson is basic: “Short-term pain for long-term gain.” The magazine forgot to explain that although the “short term” of the Civil War was a mere four years, the “pain” was considerable: 750,000 deaths North and South—probably too many for today’s corporate leaders to inflict on their own employees.
The management wisdom Entrepreneur magazine found in Spielberg’s Lincoln: “Get comfortable with conflict.” The conflict in question, of course, was the biggest and most destructive war of the nineteenth century (after the Napoleonic wars). Some would say Lincoln was never “comfortable” with the death and destruction—but when it comes to today’s CEOs, maybe it’s “different strokes for different folks.”
The New York Times Sunday business section recently ran a huge piece on page one informing “executives, entrepreneurs and other business types” about “the Lincoln school of management,” written by Harvard Business School historian Nancy F. Koehn. As the Civil War stretched on with no end in sight, and Union armies took heavy losses, Lincoln described himself “as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live.” Professor Koehn says you can also get depressed from running a business—because of problems like “supplier delays” and “late payments.” Those fearing that the supplies, and the payments, will never arrive, should learn a lesson from Lincoln: he “never gave way to his darkest fears.”
The Spielberg film showed Lincoln visiting battlefields and talking to soldiers. Goodwin, who has been on the Lincoln management advice circuit for years, as Tom Frank has noted, found another lesson here: practice “management by walking around.” For example, mortgage bankers could walk around the decaying neighborhoods where they foreclosed on the houses and evicted the people. That’s not my idea—that’s advice from Lincoln.
Entrepreneur magazine says that those who want to know “how to lead revolutionary change at your startup or small business” should follow Lincoln’s example and “take an interest in others.” But of course it depends which others you are talking about. One example: the “others” whom Lincoln declared free in the Emancipation Proclamation and whom he recruited to his army to fight for their freedom. “Taking an interest” in them is indeed a lesson we can learn from Lincoln.
And there are some key moments in Lincoln’s life that the management advice people have neglected. One came in his Second Inaugural Address, when he declared that, if the Civil War continued “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” he would conclude that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
As Eric Foner observed in his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Lincoln was “reminding the country that the ‘terrible’ violence of the Civil War had been preceded by two and a half centuries of the terrible violence of slavery.” Here, Foner continues, Lincoln was asking the entire nation, “what were the requirements of justice in the face of those 250 years of unpaid labor?” On that topic, our management advice experts are strangely silent.
For more lessons of history and social justice, check out Tom Tomorrow’s “Constitutional Law 101.”