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Leadership Lessons from Lincoln: Come Down From Your Ivory Tower

November 1, 2009

I am taking a fantastic class called “Leadership and Rhetoric” at Pepperdine University with Dr. Johny Garner. Our most recent assignment required us to analyze a book about leadership using the theories and materials from class. My group chose The Centurion Principles by Jeff O’Leary, a book that uses a diversity of leaders throughout history from Joan of Arc to Ulysses S. Grant as examples of strong and successful leadership. I will highlight one particular chapter featuring Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the U.S., faced a war-torn country on the brink of collapse. Lincoln was a man that was by the people, for the people, and with the people. He spent more than half of the month in the trenches and among his followers. He left his “ivory tower”- an action with several benefits to himself, his followers, and ultimately his government. Leaders must know their followers beyond their functions. Transformational leaders satisfy more than their followers basic needs; they help followers reach their full potential and gain a sense of self fulfillment. You can only do this if you get out there and communicate with your followers.

Benefits of Leaving the Ivory Tower

  1. You will gain trust and respect from your followers if they know you understand what they do
  2. You will gain new perspectives and invite creative solutions when you enable open communication
  3. You can spread and strengthen your vision through story-telling and interaction with followers
  4. You can address dissent before it grows if you are available and empower your followers with a voice

Leaving Your Ivory Tower: The Plan

Here are several steps to become a transformational leader who knows and cares for his or her followers taken from the life of Abraham Lincoln:

First, schedule time out of the office every day. Find different lower-level employees and supervisors and visit them in their workspace. Find out about what kinds of challenges they face and what their job entails. Work your way along until you’ve met and spent time with every member of your organization. Spending a small amount of time will give you a lot of information and help you spread your vision.

Second, get reports from the source whenever possible. If that means taking a trip, walking up the stairs, or having them come to you, then do that. You gain clarity when you speak face-to-face with someone.

Third, invite people to question your ideas and directions during the formulation stage. If you find that you cannot respond with clear and convincing answers, then take a step back and rethink your position. “An idea that can’t stand the light of an argument is not one that should see the light of day.”

Fourth, take the high road even if it is the long route. Create a vision that supports followers and considers the future of an organization. Centurion and transformational leaders set the ethical standard for their followers and earn loyalty and trust.

Above all, be patient with yourself. It takes time, effort, and practice to become a great leader. Watch others who possess charisma, creativity, innovation, and honor and learn from them. Never stop watching and learning from those who are more successful than yourself.

“It’s not a weakness to admit your limitations; it is a weakness not to improve them.”

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