Reflections on Leadership, Legitimacy and Lincoln

Lincoln – The Movie

Stephen Spielberg’s recent, and some might say most inspiring movie yet, is the multiple Golden Globe and Oscar winner Lincoln.  Based loosely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie relates the story of Abraham Lincoln’s successful delivery of the 13th Amendment to the US constitution, effectively outlawing slavery in the US for ever.  The political calculation that Lincoln had to make was how ensure the passing of the 13th amendment before the end of the Civil War.  When the war ended and the rebel states re-entered the Union, Lincoln feared legal action to reverse the emancipation of slaves because it was made by a war time Presidential Proclamation in 1863.

In a tense period of a little over a month, Lincoln’s Republican Party operatives cajoled and bribed Democrats into backing the amendment with appeals to their moral – and in some cases less moral – instincts.  Meanwhile the right wing of the Republican Party was persuaded into supporting the vote by a somewhat partial message from the President which failed to confirm that a Confederate peace envoy was on its way to Washington.  And Republican radicals were persuaded not to characterise the Amendment as a vote for full racial equality, rather as a vote for equality before the law. In the end the Amendment debate on January 31st 1865 was won by just two votes, thereby achieving high principle through somewhat pragmatic political means.

Lincoln the Leader

Some historians have criticised the movie for factual inaccuracies, and I have no doubt they were numerous, given the complexity of the story that Spielberg had to condense into two and one half hours.  But a year before the movie emerged, I read A Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald White and was struck by how well actor Daniel Day-Lewis captured the essence of the character of Lincoln and the sacrifices he made for his country.  Lincoln was that rare example of a political leader who was able steadfastly to pursue a higher purpose – the unification of a country around an updated set of democratic principles – knowing he had to lead public and political opinion through careful argument and explanatory oratory if he was to secure his goal.  The ideals of equality “under God” and of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” which Lincoln asserted in his Gettysburg address remain today central tenets of American society.

In the week the world bids farewell to Lady Thatcher and the Liberal Party of Canada embraces its new leader – son of another strong Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau – it is interesting to muse on what the phrase ‘government by the people’ means today in the context of our public institutions and what style of leadership best lends itself to this ideal.

Leadership and Legitimacy

Clearly some level of authority and legitimacy derives from the office and the system that confers power on an individual leader for whatever length of time the mandate is given.   As incoming President with a term of six years ahead of me, I am delighted to have a clear mandate to lead.  However, I believe that true legitimacy is earned through action in service of a higher purpose, not the simple act of election or appointment, whether that is in elected government office or appointed public service.

The concept of ‘servant leadership’ has emerged in recent decades to describe participative and facilitative leadership styles that have their roots in the philosophy of Lao Tzu who said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”   In my experience there is much wisdom in this approach; today, facilitative leadership styles are finding increased traction in both the private and public management spheres popularised by the work of management theorists like Daniel Goleman (who coined the term ‘emotional intelligence’) and Peter Senge (who described ‘the learning organisation’).   And yet in western societies we still find it hard not to project power onto leaders and hierarchical structures and demand results and accountabilities from individuals, sometimes regardless of the capacity of systems or people in organisations to deliver those results.

Given the amount and diversity of literature available on the subject of effective leadership these days, but the relative lack of discussion of power and legitimacy of leaders in organisations (except in a negative sense), I sometime find it helpful to remember the work of Mary Parker Follett.  Ms Follett, who was apparently denied a PhD from Harvard because of her gender, noted the vitally important distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power with’ in both public and private organisations, contributing to what we now characterise as the human relations movement in organisational studies.

In her 1924 book Creative Experience, Mary Parker Follett wrote: “What is the central problem of social relations? It is the question of power… But our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power. We frequently hear nowadays of ‘transferring power as the panacea for all our ills’. Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.”

As we commence the new Presidential term and the Cape Breton University community rightly debates its future and what values will guide the institution in years to come, I am sure we will remember these principles.  Cape Breton University may not be the United States of America, but I believe we can pursue our principles and espouse a higher purpose with confidence; and we can do that together in a spirit of shared commitment and shared accountability where everyone is a leader.

David Wheeler

President and Vice Chancellor

Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience.  New York: Longman Green and Co (reprinted by Peter Owen 1951). 303 + xix pages.