Anyone can lead during the easy times. But how do leaders paint a compelling future during the tough times?
Or the more delicate question is, how do leaders paint a bright future without sounding like they’re out of touch with reality?
Below is an opening line from an influential speech. Take a second to read it, and then guess:
– Who said it?
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
Like I said… anybody can lead during the good times.
But what if I told you these words came from Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War, less than 3 months after the bloodiest battle in American History?
Was he out of touch with reality? Hardly! Lincoln was very much aware of the enormity of the situation. If you read the rest of Lincoln’s Original Thanksgiving Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, you see a leader very much in touch with reality.
Lincoln knew what all great leaders know: Leaders must be able to cast a compelling vision of the future… especially in the hard times.
So, how does a leader cast compelling vision without sounding like they are out of touch? Here are three things I learn from Lincoln.
1. Acknowledge the Present.
Don’t blow by the present circumstances. Acknowledge times are tough. But at the same time, look for the positives in the current situation. Become a glass-half-full person (or get someone on your team who is!).
In Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, he acknowledged the severity of the war, but was thankful for the industry of people that kept the fabric of society alive, and for the greater peace that existed in the word at large.
2. Find a “greatest common purpose.”
Rise out of the present and find something “higher”‘ that appeals to all. Who doesn’t want peace? Or a bright future for their children?
In Lincoln’s day, the appeal was to God as Father and an end to bloody conflict.
These days, it’s getting harder to appeal to God, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying. Find ways to communicate the higher good that God represents in your circumstance. And with some help, maybe they will begin to see God in it!
3. Paint often.
At every opportunity, paint the picture of what it would look like for everyone to unite in a common, higher purpose. Begin with how it affects the individual, but move to the whole.
Lincoln took advantage of speeches to project a unified United States with freedom and and end to conflict. But he didn’t do it only in public venues. He spent time among the troops, among the people most affected. He communicated in ways the common person could understand. And he never stopped painting the greater future.
In America, we have just completed a contentious election process, resulting in disunity and a host of negative emotions. I wonder if this would be a good time to look at the Battle of Gettysburg and remember the tremendous cost of disunity run amok?
And I wonder… where are the leaders who will acknowledge the present, find the greatest common purpose, and paint often?
Is it you?
How might you paint a compelling future in your environment? What other steps would you add?