True North: A Lesson in Leadership From Spielberg’s Lincoln

The movie Lincoln has stuck with me every since I saw the film. Spielberg’s Lincolnis a phenomenal movie across every possible category. Abraham Lincoln has always been my favorite public servant and president. I was left mesmerized by the film, and have been meaning to go see it again. I can see this movie being played in classrooms across the country to teach students about Lincoln, leadership, Civil Rights, Civil War Era, and so many other topics critical to American history.

Yet, there was one scene in the movie that I cannot stop thinking about. At one point, Lincoln is speaking in private with Thaddeus Stevens, who holds a powerful position as the Ways and Means Chairman. Lincoln is talking with Stevens about his vote and lobbying support for passing the 13th Amendment in the House. Lincoln and Stevens are talking in the basement of a kitchen, Stevens, a fierce abolitionist who has spent his entire life fighting for racial equality is debating Lincoln on the 13th amendment, that it does not go far enough in terms of Civil Rights, and their differing views on post-war reconstruction.

Lincoln proceeds to give an eloquent analogy of true north and where your moral compass can steer you if you are not careful. Lincoln reminds Stevens that “true north” is a noble aim and essential, but in the end, going true north means that there are challenges along the way. The journey is not linear, the path is not clear and values will be challenged. Lincoln challenges Stevens to think that if you cannot endure the journey, and you get stuck in a swamp, what good is it to know true north?

I am not sure if this story is based on Lincoln or if the authors/script writers wrote an unbelievable analogy about being a change agent for organizations. As leaders, managers, employees, and whatever hat we put on a day-to-day basis, Lincoln has identified the core challenge for us. Constantly there is a tension between our moral compass and the reality of environment and surroundings. We simply cannot get our intended and desired outcomes blindingly traveling north. We’ll get stuck in a swamp, no matter how righteous or just the journey.

This is one of the most important traits for a leader and change agents in an organization. People have a clear understanding of what is right, and what is wrong. But the revelation of knowing the right decision is often trumped by the ability to go through the journey.

In Lincoln, we are challenged to do more as leaders. The Lincoln film challenges us to know that sometimes the journey will be rough, and our obligation is to have people follow us along the way and steer them towards true north. How we get there and how we lead – that’s not an easy task and there is no easy answer.

For me, I took a lot out of that scene, and as we are constantly challenged to meet outcomes and challenge ourselves, we return to how important communication, transparency, collaboration and trust is for leadership. Although these words sound great, leadership transcends and goes beyond just the buzz words, it’s about actions, and how actions meet stated values.


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