Who Lives Like This?

Would you tolerate someone with whom you had vast personality differences? Would you support people whom you knew had made verbal attacks on your character and abilities to lead? It seems irreconcilable differences are a good reason for so many who work together to not work together. Often we evaluate our effectiveness by what we accomplish in life. But what of character? To live above personality frictions is a rare quality.

I grew up in the “Land of Lincoln”, Illinois. I have always had a kind of mystical awe from childhood of Abraham Lincoln. Having just finished the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, my esteem of the man has only gone up. It is not because of great deeds he had done, nor his ability to win a war and preserve the unity of the United States. Above all it is his character that stands out, his ability to lead with greatness, his magnanimity that kept him focused above personality issues.

Magnanimous literally means “Great Soul”. It is a loftiness of spirit that enables a person to bear trouble calmly. It is to live above the meanness and pettiness of others.

Magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere.
— Van Wyck Brooks


Magnanimous Lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s Life

Lesson One: When interacting others, try to understand where they are coming from and appeal to their own convictions.

Lincoln looked for the common ground with those who opposed him. He tried to put himself in another person’s shoes. When attempting to appeal to slave owners in regard to the legal status of blacks, he did not refer to some fundamental human right. He simply he pointed out the contradictions in their own laws concerning the morality of slavery.


Lesson Two: Rise above petty resentments and keep your eyes on the big picture.

Lincoln held no grudges. Two rivals refused to support him for senator in Illinois even though he had the majority. Not wanting for his party to lose the election, Lincoln withdrew his name. Later when one of them was running for governor he wrote saying he did not believe any charges against them that they did him wrong. He assumed the best of intentions.


Lesson Three: Gather the best people around you regardless of the personality differences.

Lincoln welcomed opinions that opposed his. As president he assembled his cabinet from formal rivals because he wanted the best people to help him lead.


Lesson Four: See the big picture and communicate it to everyone around you.

When Lincoln spoke he was able to articulate the issues of the day in profound and simple terms. When crafting his inaugural address he took time to process his thought. When writing the Gettysburg address he was able in a short speech to talk about the common history of the country and where the state of the Union stood in light of that history.


Lesson Five: Listen well to those around you and be able to adjust your thinking.

The United States faced a difficult decision about two former Confederate senators that escaped aboard a British ship. Lincoln wanted to take a firm hand in the matter and forcibly remove them from the vessel. Secretary of State, William Seward told Lincoln that they needed to let them go. The U.S. did not want a war with England also. He wisely listened and avoided what could have been a major disaster.


Lesson Six: Keep the “why” of what you do predominate and stick to your principles.

Though willing to listen and work with others Lincoln never wavered in his principles. He had an “indomitable sense of purpose that sustained him.” After proposing of giving federal aid to states that agreed to the gradual abolition of slavery, he received severe criticism. Frederick Douglas thought him prejudiced. Horace Greeley, an influential newspaper editor, wrote a scathing letter that his stance on slavery was weak. Lincoln replied that his ultimate aim was to preserve the union, not to save slavery or annihilate it. He wanted to be rid of slavery but avoid further conflict.



My biggest take-away about the life of Abraham Lincoln is the “unselfish magnanimity” by which he lived. He had a “loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly.” Lincoln was able to rise above the sectarian nature of the conflict and proposed a larger picture to bring people together. In light of that, we must be able to do what some call “tell a better story” than the pettiness and opposition of those around us.


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