In the latest New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg does an amusing riff on the holiday coming next Monday—is it President’s, Presidents’ or Presidents Day? In 1968, Congress designated the holiday as the third Monday in February to give workers a reliable three-day weekend and get past the confusing movements of Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays that month. Hertzberg concludes, “At this chastening juncture in our republic’s history, wouldn’t everyone welcome a moratorium on Presidential glorification?” In a fit of “throw the rascals out,” Hertzberg advocates removing the Presidents from the design of U.S. currency.

We should be more careful. I am not a fan of “Presidents’*** Day.” The ambiguous name seems to embrace the good (Lincoln and Washington), the bad (Arthur, Fillmore, and Buchanan), and the ugly (several notables in that department). More importantly, we shouldn’t celebrate the memory of someone because of an office—rather, we should commemorate qualities of character worth remembering. This is a lesson for business executives and MBA students. At least three elements of exemplars are important.

First, the memory of great executives inspires. They stand out from the crowd in some meaningful way that helps us lift our gaze—and our aspirations—from the average to the excellent. They give us an alternative for thinking about what we do and why. There is some element in their lives that suggests, “you can do this too.” Massive monuments in the national capital are useful mainly to draw attention to the exemplar. Unfortunately, the monuments seem to assert our insignificance relative to the great person. The best exemplars transcend this

Second, the memory of great executives can improve practice; they give a how. Great executives are remembered for some element of style or action-taking that is useful in dealing with others, some enduring techniques or styles that can improve our game.

Third, the memory of great executives holds a mirror and asks, who are we now, and who can we become? An exemplar helps us set an agenda for personal learning and growth.

I’m reminded of these points by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I highly commend the book to MBA students and business professionals. It is a brilliant illustration of the management of a difficult team. Goodwin gives a biography of Lincoln and the circle of cabinet officials in his administration, most of whom were Lincoln’s rivals for the Presidency: William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Edward Bates. The book lends a powerful example of personal leadership that forges a successful coalition.

**What and why. Goodwin lets us know that Lincoln and his rivals were highly ambitious politicians. The fact that Lincoln was ambitious is usually lost in the kindly lore about this man, as if to suggest that ambition is a bad thing. Rather than condemn ambition, it is better to ask toward what end the person is ambitious. Lincoln’s career suggests that ambition in the service of some higher good can be admirable. He condemned slavery and wanted to rise in position to confront it. His commitment to a new vision for the United States became the unifying thread for the formation of Lincoln’s cabinet. When he took office, national unity was the paramount need. Seven states had seceded from the Union as of his inauguration. The country was in deep crisis. Even among the Northern states, Lincoln faced sharp divisions. By drawing his abolitionist rivals into his cabinet, he modeled and inspired the rest of the country to rally around the causes of unity and abolition.

**How. Goodwin details Lincoln’s extraordinary personal outreach to his rivals, to draw them into his cabinet, and then to keep the cabinet together during the stream of war catastrophes from 1861 to 1863. All of his rivals were prickly personalities. Several tried to subvert his leadership and authority. Most threatened to resign or offered resignations, thus threatening the leadership with turmoil. Salmon Chase quit the cabinet to run against Lincoln in 1864 and then, having lost, tried to return to the cabinet. What emerges in Goodwin’s book is a managerial profile of Lincoln that includes incredible stamina and patience, profound determination, truly superior communication skills, astute political instincts, excellent mediation talents, and a well of geniality that time and again dissolved the bitterest feelings among cabinet officials. Lincoln was an extraordinary team-oriented leader.

**Who. As John F. Kennedy said, from those “to whom much is given, much is expected.” On this basis, we would have expected virtually nothing from Lincoln. He was born poor, received no formal education, was bankrupted in a business venture, lost several political campaigns, and was jilted in love. He suffered from depression. He lost a child during his first term in the Presidency, after which his wife grew emotionally unstable. At the start of his administration, none of his rivals thought that Lincoln was a viable President; he was not a charismatic leader; he had no significant executive experience; he looked homely and dressed poorly. Everyone waited for him to fail. If Lincoln were able to accomplish what he did, working under these handicaps, perhaps there is great hope for the rest of us.

The fashion today is to discount executives, either by nullifying them all (in the spirit of Hendrik Hertzberg) or blending them into a low common denominator (Presidents’ Day). Instead, I vote for choosing and celebrating individually the exemplars among them, such as Lincoln. Exemplars in government—and in business—remind us of the things we value and the lessons we can learn from them.

***Googling that title will turn up all three expressions, in more or less equal proportions. I’ll argue that the apostrophe should indicate plural possession. It is the day of more than one President.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 02/16/2007 10:32:24 PM