The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders

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“Whistling Dixie” on Presidents’ Day

In April of 1865, the Confederate States Army under General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the American Civil War.

Although the country had been deeply divided, with both the North and South seeing the other as a bitter enemy, upon hearing of Lee’s surrender, President Lincoln said:  “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted that we fairly captured it. I presented it to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance.”

This comment, following a hard-earned victory, was rightfully jubilant.  President Lincoln’s words, in their lighthearted way, also reveal two critical leadership lessons on the intellectual courage and openness to simultaneously hold as true two contrasting points of view, lessons on how to transform a competitor into a collaborator, an enemy into an ally.

Lincoln imparted two razor sharp leadership lessons in these few words, both of which will serve any leader well in almost any circumstance.

First, he courageously referred to General Lee and the Confederate States Army as “adversaries over the way” instead of as enemies.  Once you call someone an enemy, it is difficult to transform that enemy into a friend, but an “adversary over the way” is a temporary status that is based on contextual factors.  Under these circumstances, we have been adversaries, but under different circumstances, we would have been friends.  The words allowed President Lincoln room to collaborate with those who disagreed with him instead of locking himself into a competition that required his opponent to lose in order for him to win.

Then, by asking the band to play “Dixie,” he expressed his right and his desire to to show affection for a symbol that his opposition had used to rally their troops against him.  By asking the band to play “Dixie,” he subtly integrated the culture of the South as American culture, and he allowed himself to be a fan and expression of a symbol that had been used to separate his voice from the voice of the South.  By asking the band to play “Dixie,” he opened his own pathway to reconciliation, even before the two sides had reconciled with one another.

The “Dixie” example is just one of many examples of how President Lincoln led by elevating the whole above the sum of its parts.  In Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin illustrates how Abraham Lincoln began his presidency by appointing his political rivals to positions in his cabinet, not as token observers but as engaged contentious challenging advisors.  By blurring the boundaries of competition, Lincoln opened up lines of communication that allowed him to see the multiple perspectives he needed to see to make some of the toughest decisions required of any American President to date.

Sometimes we have to define sides in order to fight necessary battles, but if we lead from the perspective of having contextual adversaries who can eventually become collaborative allies, we shift our thinking from limited victories to enduring success.  Lincoln lived this ideal, and remembering (and perhaps even applying!) these leadership legacies on Presidents’ Day is a great way to honor him as well as the best in each of us.

-By Arin N. Reeves

NOTE:  I use this example of Lincoln’s request of “Dixie” as an illustration of how Lincoln led.  The historical and ongoing socially complex meanings of “Dixie” as a controversial song and a cultural symbol makes this example even more interesting in my eyes, but I will save the full conversation on that topic for another day.