Tag Archives: Lincoln

Lincoln, Leadership and The Salvation Army

7 Feb


I recently saw the film Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery.

In the film directed by Spielberg, there is a scene where the bombastic and powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, Thaddeus Stevens privately debates with the president.  Stevens, a staunch abolitionist, is concerned about Lincoln’s apparent equivocation on the issue of slavery, and urges unwavering adherence to a “moral compass” that points unambiguously toward “True North.” Lincoln counters that this is all well and good, except when your moral compass steers you into a swamp. Your True North doesn’t matter much then. You’re stuck in the swamp.

I don’t know if this debate ever happened or if the credit goes to the scriptwriters. But in any case, the tension between principles and pragmatism is at the root of many dilemmas facing leaders today.

Some leaders simplistically frame this in “either/or” terms: you can either be true to your principles or completely abandon your principles by succumbing to outside pressures. But extraordinary leaders like Lincoln seek a more nuanced understanding by harnessing the dialectical tension—forging solutions that embrace both the principles they hold dear while at the same time acknowledging the real-world factors that are often beyond their control.

Thaddeus Stevens was put to the test when asked to speak in front of the House of Representatives during the critical debate on the Thirteen Amendment that would abolish slavery. Stevens had long argued that slavery should be abolished on the basis of the principle that all men are equal, regardless of their race.  But on this occasion, he is cautioned that a full-throated and candid articulation of his views would be amplified by a fickle press, instigating fear among crucial Representatives, and lead to certain defeat of the measure.

At the moment of truth, Stevens backs down from his purely principled position, softening to the more palatable argument that all men should be treated equally under the law.  While certain radical Republicans were aghast, his more tempered plea was exactly what was called for under the circumstances, and the constitutional amendment passed by a meager two votes.


Stevens could have stuck to his original moral compass, which would have steered him directly into the swamp. Instead, through his struggle, he discovered a new authentic True North voice, one that worked in service of his ultimate purpose, the abolition of slavery.

We all have a moral compass don’t we, some kind of cause we strive for or believe in. The Salvation Army’s True North is to communicate and live out the transforming message of Jesus, bringing freedom and hope into lives of a world of the hurting, broken, lonely and lost, reaching them in love by all means necessary.

The movement has grown and now faces many challenges in the 21st century such as how to be forward thinking as membership rates drop alongside a tendency to live on the glory of the good old days. Ask Microsoft and Apple how difficult it is to remain successful, and not only in one country but many. Today, The Salvation Army is in 126 countries but aspires to be one movement.

It’s not easy to change. As leaders and members of The Salvation Army (indeed any organization), we must be able to recognize the strong entailment of our history on our mission and form without making that history a definitive model. We need to look again at our core beliefs and values, our ‘True North’ and be ready to throw out cultural additions accumulated through the ages that hinder rather than promote our values.

Imagine as General Linda Bond (world leader of The Salvation Army) envisions:

‘a God-raised, Spirit-filled Army of the 21st century, convinced of its calling, moving forward together into the world the hurting, broken, lonely, disposed and lost, reaching them in love by all means with the transforming message of Jesus, binging freedom, hope and life.’

How we avoid the swamp of irrelevancy, of reputation protecting at all costs, and of division is not an easy question. How do we find an authentic True North that serves the vision, but might call upon us to change, which might seem unnatural or risky. Again I don’t have a complete answer.

But I’m reminded in Lincoln that extraordinary leaders like Abraham Lincoln seek a more nuanced understanding forging solutions that embrace both the principles they hold dear while at the same time acknowledging the real-world factors. The Salvation Army was not created to be risk-averse but at the same reckless decision-making and wholesale changes will likely steer us wayward.  Keeping our True North in mind will help us plot our way forward, though at times change may hurt, but ultimately allow us not to end up in a swamp!