Contents – Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons.


Edited by Anthony Sloan and Chris Brown.

Michelle Magennis: Abraham Lincoln – Basic lifeline and his failures.

Chris Brown: The character of Abraham Lincoln.

Kara Humphreys: Abraham Lincoln as a people person.

Eamon McHugh: The problems Lincoln encountered and his personal anguish over the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Joe George: A closer look at the Emancipation Proclamation.

David Hughes: The language of leadership.

Richard Scannell: Lincoln’s Decisiveness.

Sarah McKeown: Relating it all back to the Young Leaders.


The following excerpts from ‘Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons’ exemplify two possible approaches to an analysis of leadership. The first example reflects a narrative style while the second example reflects an analytical breakdown of style:


The Problems Lincoln Encountered and His Personal Anguish Over the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.


Below is the view that one Young Leader has on the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln. The piece is meant to be read aloud and is written as if Lincoln himself was the voice.

"I am Abraham Lincoln and I am the 16th President of the United States of America. I feel my presidency has been a balancing act and the task I face is harder than anything Washington was up against. My principal opponents are the extreme abolitionists, mostly within my own party who think I do not go far enough, the opposition Democrats who think I go too far and the miscellaneous political discontents who merely want me out of the way. I have had to disarm some of my most formidable critics by appointing them to the Cabinet, including my four main rivals for the Presidency from both parties. Throughout this war, I have been in sole command. I carry an awful burden of responsibility and a tragic sense of guilt, shame and regret that inevitably oppresses the wager of war and the commander of battles. The ghosts of 100,00 soldiers haunt me and the tears of their mothers and widows. I admit there have been times when I have wavered in my determination to win the war and I did toy with the idea of an accommodation with the South. Hints of treason and whispers of treachery have disturbed me. Defeats have exasperated me, generals have disappointed me, colleagues have conspired against me, hostile newspaper comment has depressed me and more than one of my old friends have been killed in action. It has troubled me that the North’s war aims do not include the compulsory liberation of the slaves, but I have dismissed the idea. I feel it would have been constitutionally illegal and that it would have antagonized the slave states of the border who might well be pushed into secession. However, after 2 years of war, I feel that military necessity has compelled me to change my mind. The Southern armies have the advantage in morale of fighting in a personal and heartfelt cause, whereas we, the Northerners, fight only out of duty or conventional patriotism. The Proclamation of Emancipation means that the Civil War is no longer a squabble, but a moral crusade at last. This has been a personal decision. My Cabinet was astonished when I told them what I wanted to do, and many disagreed. However, I will stick by my decision. I was ready to make the emancipation announcement long before I did, but the war was going disastrously for us at that time, and defeat seemed inevitable. On William Seward’s advice I postponed the proclamation until the news took a turn for the better. I didn’t want it to be seen as a measure of desperation. In July 1862, we at last won a moderate success at Antietam in Maryland, so on the 22nd September I presented a draft proclamation to my Ministers in the Cabinet room of the White House. I told them how I could redeem the promise which I had long before made to myself. The time for emancipation had come. From New Years Day 1863, anyone held as a slave within any state or part of a state in rebellion against the Union Government would be ‘then, thence forward and forever free.’ Although I do not know if this is the right thing, my mind is made up. I was surprised to find my Cabinet did not rush to offer amendments so after a few changes I presented a preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation to the people. I can only trust in God I have made no mistake.

You are my people but I am a man of ideals and principles and guiding our country through the bloodiest time in our nations history. I am trying to include all of your views and ideas because its not where we’re coming from but where we will stand because we must remain unified."

Abraham Lincoln."


The Language of Leadership.



To be a truly great leader, one must take action. Making a difference means making things happen; concrete things, which truly benefit people’s everyday lives. However, language is a crucial tool in this process – yes, actions speak louder than words, but words themselves can be pivotal and can be a catalyst and lifesaver in many leadership situations.

With language, a leader can inspire, guide, impassion, and truly lead his/her followers. People such as Martin Luther King, Eamon DeValera, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt have used language to its fullest to achieve their long-term goals. In short, language holds much power in the life of a leader.

Lincoln as a Linguist.

Abraham Lincoln was fully aware of the above truths. He was no stranger to stirring and inspirational rhetoric, and much of his eventual success as a leader – and his immortal place among America’s great leaders – is a result of the powerful words he used. We, as young leaders – have many practical lessons to learn from Lincoln in this regard.

In writing a speech, Lincoln would employ many persuasive and rhetorical devices, which still prove effective today. In fact, leaders such as Martin Luther King imitated his techniques a century later.

Some of these techniques are as follows:

Using a biblical tone

This may not be useful among all audiences, but Lincoln’s audience was 19th Century America – quite a religiously puritan place. The lesson to learn is to adapt your tone and the texture of language you use to the audience before you. If you are giving a speech to a classical music society, a reference to Mozart’s childhood will be more warmly appreciated than a reference to Abba, for example.


Since listing things is pleasing to the ear and lends structure to an oration. Lincoln would often use lists. It may not be immediately evident that you are making a list – it is not always a list of shopping items. As a hypothetical example: "First we must fight for freedom, then we must strive for unity, finally we must search for peace".

Contrast and balances

Again, this device makes it easier and more enjoyable to listen to a speakers point. It involves juxtaposing two completely contrasting notions not as a contradiction but to reinforce the point being made. For example: "Many think the system is working. I know it is failing. Many think that people are succeeding. I am certain that people are struggling."

Language Register

Lincoln was a master at judging the level of language he should use. On one hand, he needed to convey complex and intellectually challenging messages to a nation on the brink of collapse. On the other hand, he needed to ensure that the common folk of that country comprehended his message. Essentially, he needed to appeal to the well educated and the average person simultaneously. This requires great skill in choosing a language register. As orators, it is crucial that we consider our audience when opting for words and syntactical structures.

In my opinion, by using these techniques Lincoln gave structured, logical and convincing speeches and fully utilised language as the leadership tool that it is.

Case Study: The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln addressed thousands of people at a dedication ceremony toward the end of the Civil War. So many had died at the famous Battle of Gettysburg, that it was decided that they should be buried in a cemetery outside the Pennsylvania town, rather than brought home to their respective states. Lincoln delivered his two-minute address at a time when US society was still torn between a desire for union and a desire for independence – at a time when brother had just fought brother because of fundamentally differing political beliefs among Americans. This division heightened the importance of Lincoln’s words – it was crucial that he speak to both commemorate those who had lost their lives, and to achieve greater unity among his people. This is his address:

"Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In analyzing the address, we see many of the techniques mentioned above, as well as some hitherto unmentioned.


E.g. "we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground"


e.g. "we are met to dedicate…but in a larger sense we can not dedicate"


Biblical language

e.g. "Four score and seven years ago"

The language of democracy (always helps to win over audiences in the USA)

e.g. "all men are created equal", "government of the people…"

Language Register

Lincoln combines profound messages such as "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract" with more basic and accessible phrases like "We are met on a great battle-field of that war". Thus he communicated well with all sectors of his audience.


Notice that Lincoln favors the inclusive term "we" over the condescending "you" and the selfish "I".

Powerful assumptions

Often an audience is persuaded of a viewpoint, simply if the speaker makes assumptions and refuses to entertain or consider an alternative. Examples of this in the Gettysburg address include "It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this"

Removing the limelight from the orator

No audience will be endeared to a leader who sings his/her own praises; often, understating one’s role in the leadership process can enhance it. Ironically, Lincoln states "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here". In fact, although America does remember the role played by those who gave their lives, the Gettysburg address is probably more prominent in the American psyche: in fact, millions of American school-children have learnt to recite it by heart.

All in all, the Gettysburg address is a fine example of the power that language can give a leader. When communicating with people, it is useful to keep these techniques in mind.

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