Lincoln’s Challenge

Day One at the Lincoln Leadership Institute in Gettysburg was overwhelming. Even if there was no battlefield here, coming from the concrete jungle of urban America to rural, green, agrarian western Pennsylvania is shocking to the system of a city dweller. Furthermore, there are old buildings here, many with prominent “Civil War Building” signs. Finally, everything is very small – the town, the roads, even the battlefield – 160,000 soldiers fought here on a field that spans about 6,000 acres (roughly a third the size of DFW airport).

The results were horrifying: the field hosts more than 1,300 monuments to the over 50,000 combined casualties that were inflicted over three days of fighting. Today we walked Cemetery Ridge, where Lincoln delivered the famed Gettysburg Address. This is also where thousands were buried, 979 of them unknown (marked by numbered stones). In the words of Steven Wiley, Lincoln delivered the address here to proclaim his mid-course correction for the War – from a strategy of preserving the Union towards one of perfecting the Union. As a result, we were challenged to take a few moments on that hallowed ground to reflect on our own mid-course corrections: what strategic changes should we make in our organizations, our careers, our lives?

Numbered Markers for the Unknowns

Over the next couple of days we will use vignettes from the battle as metaphors to spur our thinking and (hopefully) robust discussions on leadership. After we discuss the leadership tactics, outcomes and implications of each situation,  we’ll then walk that portion of the battlefield with expert guides to bring the experience home. I was promised by one of the guides today that the battlefield, which is about 85% preserved, is pretty much the same as it was in 1863. It should be the experience of a lifetime.

As Wiley says, we live and work in rapidly-changing, stressful environments and, despite our me-first, everything-now, Policy & Procedure-focused outlook, we could learn a thing or two from the leaders who fought desperately in this hot, humid compact patch of farmland. No question about it.  I know I have a lot to learn and I look forward to doing so and sharing what I can.

However, for now, I think the greatest insight I gathered today from the speakers was to focus on the challenge of the Gettysburg Address:

It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

I was shocked and dismayed to read this week that nearly half of Americans think that our country is in the midst of a long-term decline. How can this be? At the Visitors’ Center here, they play an outstanding introductory film in which Morgan Freeman, the narrator, points out that, while the Civil War definitively answered the question of slavery’s legality, sorting out the issue of equality continued for many decades thereafter. As evidenced by the gay marriage debate, not all of our social justice issues have been resolved, but we are making tremendous progress and without bloodshed, much less to the magnitude of any of the battles of the Civil War.

In the meantime, we are developing new technologies at an almost frightening pace, entrepreneurship is flourishing, real estate prices seem to be finding a bottom, new things are increasingly being manufactured here, and our military & intelligence community continues to thwart the evil designs of our terrorist enemies. Who knows – someday soon we may even see unemployment improve.

Despite all of the political rhetoric, an age of abundance is upon us – so how could we not be optimistic about our future? More importantly, isn’t Lincoln telling us that it’s our duty to quit fighting and start working towards making things better?

Inscription on the Peace Light Monument

Health, education, welfare should be non-political issues. We’re all better off when we’re all better off. How about we make the mid-course corrections we need to make to contribute? It’s going to be hard and I know I’ve got a lot to learn, but count me in.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding, tweeting. Take care.

About Denis

Business Leader, Consultant & Social Entrepreneur. Proven senior executive leader with deep experience guiding companies throughout various lifecycle phases including start-up, rapid growth and maturity. Principal of YellowPark Garden, providing executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.
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