top of page

Leadership Personified: To Save His Country, Lincoln Had to Transform Himself

Updated: May 19, 2023

By Jack Carroll

There are numerous examples of effective leadership from the battle of Gettysburg. The stunning Union victory provides countless stories of valor, initiative and sacrifice. It also represented the first time a Union General defeated Robert E. Lee in a major battle. Incredibly, Union General George Meade was new to the job when the epic battle began.

Meade was appointed by his Commander in Chief, President Abraham Lincoln in the early morning on June 28, 1863, just three days before the battle. Lincoln ordered Meade to assume command of the army and if he refused, he would need to resign from the army. This led Meade to state in a letter to his wife, "I was convicted and sentenced without a trial."

This ultimatum represented a dramatic change in Lincoln's leadership style. Until now, he had left major military decisions up to Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton and his senior military officers. The orders given to Meade were non-discretionary, and were in stark contrast to Lincoln's leadership style with previous generals.

But Lincoln's actions as Commander in Chief of the military were just part of his remarkable personal transformation. Lincoln entered the office of the presidency during the most critical time in our nation's history. His two biggest challenges:

  • Reestablishing control of the army

  • Recapturing public opinion

His personal turning point involved leaving behind the conventions of the past and creating new relationships. This included setting a new tone with his generals - moving from discretionary to non-discretionary orders.

During the war, he also conducted a campaign to win over the public. He broke with tradition and began communicating directly with the American people through a letter writing campaign in the country's major newspapers. In the process, Lincoln proved to be one of the best communicators to ever occupy the oval office.

Once seen as being awkward and a backwoodsman from the frontier, he excelled as a public speaker, writer, debater, humorist and conversationalist. He became the embodiment of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders focus on three areas:

  • They wisely manage the present: True to purpose and values

  • They selectively forget the past: Old values, beliefs, and behaviors that no longer serve them

  • They decisively create the future: Adopt new objectives, values, beliefs, and behaviors that enable change

These characteristics combined with Lincoln's unswerving commitment to something greater than himself provided the inspiration he needed to draft one of the greatest speeches in history – The Gettysburg Address. Today, this speech is held up as scripture within our secular society. In only 275 words, Lincoln captured the raw emotion of what was happening to his people and set the stage for healing going forward.

Without Abraham Lincoln's willingness to embrace change and commitment to transform the office of the presidency, our nation may not have withstood the devastating impact of a Civil War. It takes drastic measures to successfully navigate a crisis situation.

It also requires a leader to embrace change.

Thanks for reading.

To comment on this or learn more about inspiring examples of leadership at Gettysburg, contact the author:

Jack Carroll is Founder and lead presenter at Battle Ready Leadership – a firm dedicated to leadership training, strategic planning and brand development for organizations of all sizes with a focus on inspirational storytelling on the Gettysburg battlefield.

bottom of page