Abraham Lincoln lessons for Rotary

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I just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Team of Rivals, which is a wonderful book for anyone interested in U.S. history, and especially for anyone who wants to learn the secrets of how to be a great leader.  While Lincoln is revered as a man of great principal, faith, and vision, one of the most important themes of the book is that he was a political genius who cobbled together a Cabinet that turned out to be one of the most productive leadership teams in American history.  Daniel Day Lewis played Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning film, Lincoln, and he no doubt deserved it for his amazing portrayal of Lincoln that showed Lincoln’s humanity…something difficult to do with a historical figure as revered and as iconic as Lincoln.

I think this is probably the best known scene in the movie, where Lincoln is trying to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery.  While Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation  freed the slaves in the South by Presidential decree, slavery was still legal in the U.S. according to the U.S. Constitution.   This scene portrays Lincoln as a mighty and powerful leader who  almost bullies his followers into getting the votes he needs in Congress.  Remember this two minute clip from the movie the next time someone says they can’t do something in your club because Rotarians are just volunteers.  Wow….

The irony here is that the theme of the book is that Lincoln won virtually all of his political battles, including his nomination for President, by being…well….nice.  He was magnanimous to a fault.  He apparently had an endless capacity to forgive and forget. The character traits that seemingly most contributed to his success were humility, gratitude,  and patience…hardly the Lincoln in the clip proclaiming that he is wrapped in power. The book is full of examples of how Lincoln’s ability to stay focussed on the strengths of his team while looking past their flaws created an atmosphere where his Cabinet not only grew to respect him, they grew to love him.

 Oh, and the other huge tool Lincoln used to forge an effective team?  Humor!  His ability to spin endless funny stories and anecdotes about a variety of subjects diffused many tense situations.  The last president to be compared with Lincoln who had a talent for making his points through humorous stories was….wait for it….Ronald Reagan.  That’s right!

So what does this have to do with Rotary?  Everything!  If you are trying to build a team in Rotary be the first one to give the credit to your club members and be the first to assume the blame for anything that goes wrong…even if it wasn’t your fault.  Be patient with those who disagree with your grand designs and make sure they know how much  you value their opinions.  Keep your eyes on the long-term plan and don’t let the inevitable squabbles and personality conflicts in your club deter you from doggedly pursuing your goals.  As Mrs. Solow is always saying to me, “be nice.”  And while your at it, poke some fun at yourself and let people know you don’t take yourself too seriously.  Go out on a limb and try to get a laugh or two.  Your team will appreciate it.  It turns out those simple lessons from the book are about as good as it gets if you want to get anything done in your Rotary Club.  And it also comes in handy if you need to pass a Constitutional Amendment.

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