Last month we celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln—his 199th. Next year, we will mark the Lincoln Bicentennial, commemorating the life and legacy of one of the greatest leaders—perhaps the greatest—in our nation’s history.
In 1862, just one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln delivered his annual message to Congress, saying, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Looking back at the Civil War today, it’s hard to imagine just how precarious the state of our nation was in those trying times. As brother fought brother and the states were torn asunder, there were no assurances that we would come out of the war intact, as a single nation. A lesser leader might have wallowed in denial and buried his head in the sand—that would have been easier. But recognizing that there were no quick or easy solutions, Lincoln faced up to some painful truths—and in the process, he preserved this nation.
Today, we need only to look to the past to draw important lessons by which we can navigate a tumultuous present and uncertain future. For too long now, our country has been in denial—denial about the economy, our standing in the world and the difficult choices we must confront to remain competitive in a global marketplace. Instead of balancing budgets, we resort to gimmickry. We build a house of cards and claim they’re bricks, deferring the tough decisions to the proverbial “next year.”
There are lessons here for business, too. Corporate affairs have traditionally been conducted behind closed doors—not today. Data are everywhere. Missteps by leaders are no longer so easily whitewashed and swept under the rug—blogs spread the news as quickly as the words leave one’s lips. Wheeling and dealing in smoky backrooms has given way to streaming video, accessible 24/7. No more manipulating the numbers to obscure painful realities.
The year-old Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service asks, “What if America had more public servants whose actions were based on a foundation of integrity?” One could easily apply this question to corporate America as well, replacing “public servants” with “CEOs and board members.”
Perhaps it’s asking too much for such realities to be acknowledged in the heat of a presidential campaign. But while change is the buzzword until November, reality will begin to set in on the morning of November 5th.
As Lincoln said in that same speech, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” IBI