Three lessons in leadership teachers can learn from Abraham Lincoln

9th March 2016 at 12:11
Abraham Lincoln
What teachers can learn from the leadership of one of the greatest presidents in US history

He presided over the most tumultuous period in United States history, blazed a path for freedom and human dignity, and shaped a new vision for a still-young union. One hundred and fifty years after his death, Abraham Lincoln looms larger than life, a man who, according to former British prime minister David Lloyd George, “was such a giant figure that he loses his nationality in death.” What can 21st century leaders learn from a 19th century president?

That is the subject of Harvey Alvy’s and Pamela Robbins’ thoughtful book, Learning from Lincoln, a study of leadership practices gleaned from the life of our 16th president. Lincoln’s artful but painful career in public service is distilled into lessons on honing emotional intelligence and empathy; communicating with clarity and conviction; and implementing and sustaining a personal vision. Through an analysis of pivotal events in his presidency as well as his public and private pronouncements, the authors reveal a side of Lincoln that is just as adaptable to the classroom as it is the board room.

1. Demonstrating restraint

Great educators know how to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. That’s not just an instructional credo, but a mantra for dealing with difficult situations – uncooperative students, miscalculating supervisors, incorrigible parents. Lincoln dealt with a long line of people, adversaries and supporters alike, who at some point or another managed to personally disparage, disappoint or disillusion him. Lincoln took to writing his enemies long missives in which he blasted them for their foolishness, their hubris, and their unmitigated lack of effort – folded them into an envelope, signed and stamped each one, then buried them in a drawer, never again to touch the light of day or a postmaster’s delivery wagon. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, believing that his own General Meade could have crippled the Confederate army by pursuing Lee’s vanquished troops, Lincoln composed a heated letter to Meade:

“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with other late successes, have ended the war…Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

Showing composed restraint also guided Lincoln’s spoken communications. He once famously remarked, “Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, then to speak up and remove all doubt.” The spoken word, once released, can travel farther and be more damaging than a rifleman’s shot. Looking back at interactions we’ve had with colleagues, our students, or their parents, how many times do we wish we had actually taken Lincoln’s advice? 


2. Building trust

Lincolnesque educators trust their students and get their students to trust one another. That trust is built on shared expectations and common values that dictate everyday interactions. It is based on the belief that an ethos of personal responsibility is more powerful than a culture of fear and repercussion.  Teachers who successfully foster this culture of trust can be assured that their students will do right, even when they aren’t looking. Following a meeting that ran overtime, I returned to class nearly ten minutes after the students had re-entered the room from recess. But instead of seeing a classroom in chaos, I found students busily at work on a long-term project that they kept on standby. That’s trust forged from personal responsibility.

A similar process unfolds every time students work in collaborative groups with only intermittent contact from the teacher. We can’t expect students to discover a better version of themselves unless we give them the opportunity to explore it, and that requires a proposition of trust. For Lincoln, that value was deeply ingrained. On February 11, 1861, Lincoln departed from Springfield for Washington to assume the presidency in March. He had moved to Springfield in 1837, at the formative age of 28. Twenty-four years later, as he prepared to leave his adopted hometown, unsure whether he’d ever return, Lincoln declared:

“My friends – no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place and to the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived for a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”


3. The power of predictability and presence

Throughout his presidency, Lincoln stuck to a fairly regimented schedule. He arose at 6am each morning and ate a breakfast of coffee and eggs, read new summaries prepared by his secretaries, and then reviewed and signed documents and memos until 10 o’clock in the morning. He held cabinet meetings twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually in the mid-afternoon. At 4 PM, a carriage pulled up to the White House portico to take the president and first lady for a drive and a brief escape from the daily political grind.

Beyond the predictability of his schedule, Lincoln sought to create a public presence and air of accessibility for constituents. Every morning during his first year in office, Lincoln made himself available for what he called “public opinion baths,” an open forum for citizens to ask the president about his policies, challenge him on his positions, or convey to him their concerns. Lincoln’s aides, most notably his chief of staff John Hay, objected to these unwieldy encounters, filled often by autograph seekers or well-wishers.  

But Lincoln felt adamant that he stay visible and accessible to the people. Teachers hold a different type of public office, but they are no less accountable to their constituents. In the course of a day, teachers interact with students, dialogue with parents, collaborate with colleagues and report to supervisors. They set learning agendas, define performance goals, and monitor progress. Learning that is predictable does not necessarily mean that it is rigid or impervious to innovation. “Predictability” – in classroom expectations, learning designs, and measures of learning – can actually provide the type of stability that leads to productivity and growth. And when teachers communicate student achievement – or, in today’s digital landscape, construct online portals that make learning universal – they are following Lincoln’s example of creating a public presence that draws people in.

Lincoln’s inclusive and inspiring message would be a welcome change from the rancorous politics of the day. Given the divisive and disparaging rhetoric heard on the campaign trail, teachers would do well to emulate a presidential figure currently not on any ticket. To raise students with purpose, and to be worthy of that calling, teachers need to demonstrate more restraint, trust and presence than ever. As Lincoln himself might say, “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”

Joe Hirsch is a teacher, coach, and the author of Audible: Feedback at Full Volume to be published next spring by Rowman and Littlefield. Follow him at @joemhirsch.

This blog first appeared on Joe Hirsch's blog and on his edutopia page



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