During my vacation I’m spending a good amount of time thinking about bridge building as I have begun to write a book on the program. And as I’ve been reflecting on bridge building, I happened to stumble upon a powerful series by CNN called “Lincoln: Divided We Stand”. The series was helpful because it helped me (1) understand how we got to the place we did regarding race based upon the events that led up to – and followed – the Civil War; and (2) understand what great leadership looks like at the most challenging of times.
Today, I want to focus my attention on the second of those two insights for I believe that focus can help us better navigate our way through our own turbulent times.
The first helpful insight the series gave me regarding leadership is that great leaders are not necessarily great or admirable people on the day they step into an important position; they become great based upon their ability to grow while they hold that position. To paraphrase one of the historians who spoke to Lincoln’s greatness near the end of the series, Lincoln was revolutionary because he was first evolutionary.
What did he mean by that?
Well, it was crystal clear through the first 50 years of his life that Lincoln was NOT someone who believed in racial equality. As Lincoln said in 1858 (just 2 years before his election to the Presidency): “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any of her man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
What motivated Abraham Lincoln as he crept toward the White House wasn’t his commitment to racial equality. No, what motivated him was a desired to see the institution of slavery die a slow death so that the young country could take its place alongside other nations like Great Britain, France, and Spain that had outlawed the slave trade.
Lincoln was clear in his first campaign for the Presidency that he would not abolish slavery in the South. His goal was simply to not allow it to be brought to the new states.
Had Lincoln continued to hold such beliefs, he would not have gone down in history as one of our country’s greatest Presidents. Slowly, however, Mr. Lincoln began to change – first, as a course of necessity. The Emancipation Proclamation is a great example of his evolution.
Many people miss the fact that when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 – his intent was not to free slaves everywhere in the Union. In fact, it was clear that the slave-holding states in the Union would be allowed to continue holding their slavey. Rather, Lincoln was simply declaring slaves in the Confederate states to be free as of January 1, 1863 as a strategic way to isolate the Confederacy internationally. The proclamation also allowed freed slaves from the South to take up arms so they could fight on behalf of the Union (in segregated units, of course).
During the next two years, however, Lincoln continued to evolve. The series does a great way of documenting how things like his wife’s relationship with a freed slave helped bring a personal connection to the matters – as did Lincoln’s evolving relationship with Frederick Douglas.
It was because Lincoln remained open to evolve that he was able to get to the point where two days after the conclusion of the Civil War he spoke of extending the vote to Black men: a speech that contributed greatly to his assassination just two days later.
So what’s my point in reflecting on all of this?
My point is this: largely due to the influence of social media and the web, we are increasingly becoming a world where it is impossible for people to evolve like Lincoln did. We might find a tweet or a posted comment of Facebook from 6-8 years ago, for instance, and decide that someone is not fit to serve. If the world had worked that way back in Abraham Lincoln’s day, Lincoln would never have become President.
How do we then regain the ability to allow people the time and space they need to grow and evolve today?
Those who know me can probably predict my answer: by building relationships. For you see if my 54 years on the planet have taught me anything, it’s that when we take the time and energy to get to know those we see as “the other”, it is much harder to make snap judgments about them based upon a particular opinion. No matter how offensive a particular position may be, when you get to know someone, your emphasis shifts from WHAT a person believes toward WHY they believe what they do. This is some of the most rich soil to till.
Once you understand what caused someone to believe as they do, that understanding allows you to humanize your “opponent”. And then, very carefully, you can begin to share your own personal experiences that caused you to come to a different conclusion. At the end of such delicate conversations, you probably won’t agree on the matters at hand. But seeds will have been planted that can grow – or evolve – into insights that would have never would have happened were it not for the relationship that had been nurtured.
One of the greatest examples of that from the Lincoln series was the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. For much of his Presidency, Douglass was a painful thorn in Lincoln’s side. Douglass was always pushing Lincoln hard to politically go places that Lincoln was not yet ready to go. And from Lincoln’s perspective, I’m sure he would have said that Douglass was rarely willing to give him credit for the significant progress Lincoln had achieved.
And yet their relationship allowed them to reach a place of mutual respect. At his second inauguration, the CNN series recounted that when Lincoln spotted Douglass, he cried out for everyone to hear, “There is my friend, Douglass. Douglass, I am glad to see you.” What a powerful moment between a former slave and the newly reelected President of the United States! That moment would not have been possible for Abraham Lincoln before 1861.
So as I walk away from viewing the series “Lincoln: Divided We Stand”, I am even more committed to investing in my Bridge Builders program. For in the simple act of creating relationships with those who see the world differently, we can sew the seeds of evolution – which may one day turn into revolution.