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Leadership Lessons from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on its 157th Anniversary

Posted on December 16, 2020 at 6:00 PM

On November 19, 1863, United States' President Abraham Lincoln addressed a crowd gathered to dedicate the cemetery for the soldiers killed at the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg four months earlier. At just 271 words, Lincoln's speech was much shorter than the two-hour, 13,000 word speech that the event's main speaker, former Governor and Senator Edward Everett, delivered before Lincoln. Lincoln's words that day stand as one of the greatest political speeches in world history. It continues to provide communications lessons for leaders today. Assessing each part of the speech shines a light on the brilliance behind it.


"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."


Even though his country was consumed by civil war, Lincoln starts by bringing his audience back to the founding of the United States and reminding his fellow Americans what they agreed upon then. In many ways, Lincoln is capturing the values and mission statement for the United States in one elegant sentence. To call attention to it, he even starts the sentence with a flourish - saying "four score and seven" instead of "eighty-seven."


LESSON -> Starting a speech by revisiting shared goals can be a useful approach for speakers today. Starting on a positive note also gets people people agreeing with you and may break them out of skepticism coming in.


"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."


Lincoln uses the next part of his speech to connect his speech and his audience to those original principles. He is attempting to elevate the context of why they are gathered. It is not just about a battle in the war, or about the war itself. It is about those original principles that the war is being fought to hold up.


LESSON -> Recast issues in the context of your organization's values and mission. People still might disagree with your plan, but at least you will be reminding them of the goals and values you share.


"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."


Lincoln now brings an emotional note to his speech to connect with his audience on a deeper level. He links the ultimate sacrifice of the soldiers killed there to the purpose of the war that he outlined in the sentences above. Lincoln uses this last sentence to build a personal connection with with his audience by using "we" and saying that his words, even as President of the United States, do not compare to the sacrifice of the soldiers in the cemetery.


LESSON -> Speakers need to remember to focus not just on how they are delivering their message, but on how their recipients are receiving it. Speakers needs to build a personal connection with their audiences so their message is welcomed like a guest and not pushed away like an intruder.


"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


Lincoln ends by tying the themes above into a clear call to action for his audience. He does not just want them to feel emotional or inspired, he wants them to act through "increased devotion to that cause." He connects his audience to the fallen soldiers they are memorializing by saying the soldier's "unfinished work" is now "the great task remaining before us." It is almost like he wants each member of the audience to see a baton being passed to them from a soldier resting in his grave. Lincoln closes on the highest, most aspirational note possible, by tying their task - the victory of the cause he leads - not just to American history, but to world history. Having no higher place to go, Lincoln stops there to let his words stand on their own and sink in for eternity.


LESSON -> Even if a leader is great at connecting and communication a message, their efforts will be futile if the audience does not do something with that message. Leaders need to leave their audience with a clear call to action - an understanding of one or two specific actions they can take to follow up on the message they just received.


I get chills reading these words so many years later. Lincoln's speech became timeless because he stripped it down the essential message he wanted to deliver and put it in the broadest context possible. It provides an aspirational roadmap for leaders today seeking to inspire others.

Categories: People Leadership, Communication Skills, Values Statement