“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
So begins Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem. It’s all about mortality, and poetically reminds us that our time on this Earth is short. Many act as if they are immortal, yet all of them eventually return to dust.
Why was it that Abe had to remind himself of this fact? Certainly he already knew this. Being surrounded by the Civil War must also have been a constant reminder as to everyone’s eventual end. And he was the first President to start receiving actual death threats (as far as I know). So what’s with the poem?
Another way to ask this same question is why don’t modern politicians and leaders remind themselves of the same thing? How many actually acknowledge their mortality, not only in words, but in deeds? The newest pope comes close, by the way. Why does admitting their own mortality matter for leadership?
Because the sin of pride distorts your world in your favor, and increases the distance between your view of reality and the rest of us.
If you are proud enough you expect to have a 747 at your beck and call. You expect to live in a palace with a staff of 100. You expect a legion of photographers to follow your every move. And the more you come to expect these things as normal, the more likely you are to make decisions that reinforce your reality.
Do small airplanes get in the way of your 747? Tell them all to stop flying wherever you fly. Are the parks around your palace looking dingy? Ask the government for a few million to tidy them up. Are the paparazzi getting a bit too close? Ask for laws to keep them at bay, or decide you’re above the law and do whatever you want to mislead them – like speeding.
But if you’re serious about making great decisions and seeing the world as the rest of us, then mortal, be not proud.
Don’t be afraid of your public, take a regular flight from Washington to Chicago in the economy seats. Palace park has litter? Go pick it up yourself! Paparazzi want your pictures? Give it to them, and stand there till they get bored. Heck, hire some yourself and make some money yourself. Better yet, lead a modest, quiet regular life and bore them to exhaustion. If you really want them to go away, that is.
Abe was humble because he wanted to be the best leader possible. He knew he was smart and powerful, he didn’t need sycophants for that. But he also knew he had to understand, to the best of his ability, what the world looked like for ordinary Americans.
He may have been afraid that fateful night when he went to the theater. He certainly knew he had enemies and crazy people threatening him. But he also knew that he could not live in fear, not if he wanted to be a great leader. Especially when his country needed a great leader the most.
I like to think that Abe would still go to the theater that night, even if he knew what was going to happen. And to me, that is the greatest attribute of leadership – humility and the loss of fear.
Thank you Mr. Lincoln.