Learn from Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email

During lockdown, I started reading – or more accurately listening on Scribd on my run – to David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln.

In Chapter 16, he describes Lincoln’s fury at General Meade’s failure to prevent General Lee’s escape into Virginia.

Frustration fuelled the President’s anger.

Modern CEOs and leaders will recognise these deeper feelings if they take time to pause, stay in the present moment mindfully, and to acknowledge that anger is a much shallower feeling than the deeper unheard inner screams of frustration.

Lincoln had much to scream about: after so many lost battles, the Union’s surprising triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 led him to believe that they could end the war if only General Meade were to “complete his work”. That’s the modern equivalent of JFDI.

However, General Meade didn’t “deliver”. Lee’s army escaped across the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland into Virginia. There was a Cabinet meeting that day. And were that a crisis board meeting in today’s terms it would be said that the atmosphere was tense, to put it mildly.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of that meeting in Team of Rivals – one of several excellent books on the President – Lincoln’s face clearly revealed that he was “disturbed [and] disconcerted”. That’s 1860’s code for: he was massively pissed off.

“If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself”, he said. How many times do we hear CEOs exclaim: “Do I have to do it myself?”

Moreover, Lincoln was a President who understood the importance of clarity of purpose and how it drives strategy. He lamented, therefore that since the Union’s purpose was to defeat Lee it followed that chasing him across the river was not the right strategy.

After that Cabinet meeting, he wrote the equivalent of a stinking email to General Meade, described by Goodwin:

“While expressing his profound gratitude for “the magnificent success” at Gettysburg, he acknowledged that he was “distressed immeasurably” by “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.”

But he never sent the letter because, as Goodwin writes, “Lincoln held back, as he often did, when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle”.

That was a good decision for he later realised that since Genreral Meade had been in command for only four days before The Battle of Gettysburg and had experienced enormous losses there, he was exhausted and in a state of great “mental anxiety”.

Lincoln came to appreciate with the benefit of hindsight that he had asked too much of Meade. Had he sent the letter, the hero of Gettysburg would have been unfairly traduced.

So, emulate Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email.

Ciarán Fenton

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