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Lincoln as a Transformational Leader

This is the second of our discussions with graduates of LMU’s Ed.D. program who have completed dissertations on Lincoln and leadership theory.  As stated in our first interview, one of the Institute’s goals is to apply the insights of Lincoln studies to problems relating to leadership and administration.  As part of this mission, Dr. Charles Hubbard works with candidates in the program who are interested in researching the connections between Lincoln and leadership theory.

Cindy Bowman is a high school principal who received her doctoral degree in May 2011.  Her dissertation examined Abraham Lincoln as a transformational leader.

How did you get interested in doing a dissertation on Lincoln and leadership? 

Our first day of classes at LMU, I discovered this awesome history person named Dr. Charles Hubbard.  My undergraduate degree was in History, and here was this man who was filled with so much knowledge concerning Lincoln.  I was truly amazed.  Also, Dr. Cynthia Norris asked me to consider a dissertation on Lincoln and leadership.  So I had two experts asking me to do something different from my colleagues.

What is transformational leadership? 

Transformational leadership is a process where a leader engages followers by raising their level of motivation through empowerment, learning, trust, and communication.  The organization achieves goals beyond expectations.  The leader and followers work collaboratively on a shared vision for the present and the future of the organization.  The transformation of the organization improves and increases effectiveness, allowing for the organization to prosper and grow. Transformational leadership creates a positive organizational environment where stakeholders feel empowered and encouraged to take risks.

What kind of research does one do for a project that combines current leadership theories with history? 

I read an immense amount of literature on leadership theory and on Lincoln.  However, the benefits of focusing on the two areas outweighed the amount of time needed to focus on the topic.  I tried to read a couple of books on Lincoln every two weeks and then I would focus on research articles and books on leadership.

Were you able to draw on the work of any Lincoln specialists, or did you rely more on experts in the field of leadership studies? 

I used the work of many Lincoln authors in trying to determine if Lincoln was a truly transformational leader.  I decided early on in the research process to utilize Bennis and Nanus’ 1985 research on the characteristics of transformational leaders.  Students who go through the Education Specialist program at LMU are familiar with Warren Bennis, who co-authored Learning to Lead.

After reviewing several theories about the characteristics of a transformational leader, I chose to stick with Bennis and Nanus as the framework for my project.  The authors completed a study with ninety leaders and discovered four common characteristics of transformational leaders.  These characteristics included vision, being a social architect, trust, and deployment of self. From this point, I focused on the Lincoln literature and Lincoln’s own words in finding examples of each of the four characteristics from the Bennis and Nanus framework.

What are some ways that Lincoln exhibited this leadership style?

Upon Lincoln’s election, he made it plain that his vision was to preserve the Union. “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of theses States is perpetual,” Lincoln stated in his First Inaugural Address in March 1861. He told Horace Greely in 1862 that he would save the Union even if it meant he would not free any slaves. In November 1863, as he made his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln discussed “a new birth of freedom.”  Here the vision for America changed to one that met the ideals put forward in the Declaration of Independence, where all would achieve freedom and America would be the world’s example of equality for everyone.

Another example of leadership by Lincoln included his letter to Ulysses Grant after Vicksburg.  Lincoln had criticized Grant’s tactics at Vicksburg and he sent him a letter apologizing for his criticism.  Lincoln told him that “you were right and I was wrong.”  Lincoln empowered Grant by showing self-deployment.  Lincoln was not afraid to admit he was wrong and he wanted Grant to know he should not have criticized him.  The letter led to Grant trusting and respecting Lincoln at a higher level, and eventually led to Grant being entrusted with the Army of the Potomac.

Do you think Lincoln was conscious of the “transformational” aspects of his leadership, even if the concept itself hadn’t been defined yet?  Were these characteristics that he worked to develop in himself? 

I believe Lincoln was aware of the transformational components of his leadership.  These characteristics were a part of him.  A good example of this would be Lincoln’s willingness to meet daily with normal, everyday people who might come to ask for a pardon for their son or who just wanted to sit down and talk to the President.  He made time for others and always placed the needs of others before his own.

He established trust with his cabinet by allowing them to do their jobs without his influence.  A good example of this would be Secretary of War Stanton, who had previously called Lincoln an “ape” at the McCormick Reaper Case in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Lincoln knew he had excellent organizational skills and when his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, had to be replaced due to his involvement with corruption, Lincoln remembered Stanton.  Stanton reorganized the War Department and became one of Lincoln’s greatest supporters.  When Stanton’s son died, it was Lincoln who supported and comforted him in his time of need.  Stanton said upon Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Lincoln had the ability to empathize with others and he had a great deal of emotional intelligence.  I believe this is one of the main reasons he was successful in a time of immense crisis.

How did this style of leadership influence Lincoln’s presidency? 

Lincoln’s ability to understand human dynamics allowed him to keep the country together during the Civil War.  For two years, rebel forces won the majority of the battles.  Washington, D. C. possibly could have been taken by the Southern armies and when the threat became severe, Lincoln called on his nemesis and former leader of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, to save the capital.  Lincoln’s ability to forgive and to take credit for the blunders of his ineffective military leaders allowed him to gain the trust of the soldiers of the North and eventually led him to find a General who was not afraid of conflict, Ulysses Grant.

In a time of enormous uncertainty, he provided leadership where the country changed from one more intent on sectional interests to one focused on the entire country.  Lincoln believed strongly that slavery was wrong.  He said this over and over again.  He witnessed the slave trade in New Orleans, where families were torn apart after being sold to different masters. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, knowing many in the North might not fight to free the slaves.  Government became more centralized, including the addition of the Department of Agriculture and the re-organization of the military.  The country saw an emphasis on internal improvements and a new banking system was initiated.  All of these things occurred during the conflict between the states.  Lincoln wanted America to be the great shining star in the world and the place people would call the last, best hope for freedom.  He believed strongly in the Declaration of Independence and through his determination America would grow and prosper.

What insights do you think Lincoln historians could learn from your research that they haven’t paid sufficient attention to yet? 

I believe my research could provide a framework to analyze the characteristics of Lincoln as a transformational leader.  Other leadership characteristics displayed by Lincoln could be evaluated based on the framework I used in my research.  I plan on looking at both Lincoln’s transactional and transformational characteristics in the future as the basis of showing how an effective leader needs to balance both characteristics to produce organizational success.

Is transformational leadership a trait that you see among many modern political leaders? 

Honestly, I see limited transformational leadership characteristics among our leaders.  How many of our leaders discuss their vision?  And if they do talk about vision, it’s their vision, not one on which they collaborated with their stakeholders  Another important transformational characteristic is trust.  How many of our leaders do we trust?

I think modern-day political leaders could learn a lot by studying historical leaders such as Lincoln.  Obviously, today’s leaders need a lesson in communication and empowering followers.  They need to “be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”  The ability to empathize and understand others is a lost art.

Since you’re an administrator, what lessons do you think you’ve learned from Lincoln during your research that you think would be useful to you in your own career? 

I have learned many lessons from Lincoln.  One of the most important is to work collaboratively with my staff to develop our current and future visions for our school.  This year we developed two school goals, one for literacy and the other to improve our ACT scores.  I started the process and then focused on our staff working together as a collaborative team in producing our vision for both goals.  Our mission has become our future vision for where we want our school to be five years from now.

Another important lesson is to practice active listening.  I have learned to keep my mouth shut and to listen to others and their needs.  Our school is successful because we have great teachers and great students.  My role is more of a coach, empowering others to be innovative and to take risks in order for all of our students to experience success.  Another lesson learned from Lincoln is that when you have great teachers, stay out of their way.  If they need help, I’m there to provide guidance.  Lastly, Lincoln taught me the importance of humility and giving credit to others for any successes.

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