December 12, 2012 by

Lincoln: Lawyer, Legislator, President, Model for Today’s Educators

Editor’s note: With the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s critically-acclaimed film, Lincoln, we’re taking a look back at ASCD’s 2010 book, Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success by Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins. In the book, Alvy and Robbins take a look at how lessons in leadership from the 19th century president can help 21st century educators as they tackle challenges such as closing the achievement gap and communicating with their own constituents. Below you’ll find our Q&A with the authors. You can connect with Alvy and Robbins, as well as learn more about the book by following their future blog posts on ASCD EDge. 

What inspired you to select this 19th century leader as the subject of Learning From Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success?

Research on school leadership comes alive when vibrant and rich historical examples can be used to create a portrait, a story, of effective leadership. Lincoln’s 19th century life—his story—provides an entrée to 21st century leadership. To illustrate, the leadership challenges Abraham Lincoln confronted are similar to those faced by passionate school leaders: developing and pursuing the mission with clarity and dogged tenacity, advocating and fighting for social justice, and building a diverse and competent team. Lincoln’s life offers school leaders a profile of courage, visionary leadership and specific events from which we can draw upon to enhance our performance. Throughout Learning From Lincoln, we reflect on these examples and events and examine their implications for contemporary school leadership. For instance, the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words and includes profound, yet simple language related to our nation’s “unfinished work.” The lesson derived from Gettysburg for school leaders is to avoid educational jargon and articulate the school’s sustaining purpose with brevity and precision. Finally, just reading about Lincoln inspires one to make a difference and continually improve every day.

Which elements of Lincoln’s leadership translate particularly well into educational leadership?

Successful school leadership depends on establishing credibility and trust. Credibility and trust depend on character, actions aligned with words, predictability, and time. Horace Greeley, Lincoln’s contemporary and editorial critic, often disagreed with the President, but respected his “dogged perseverance.” If leaders are to implement new initiatives (e.g. Common Core State Standards, revised teacher evaluation practices), and make school cultural changes, professional colleagues, students and community members must trust and believe in their leaders. Implementing new initiatives is hard work. Why should colleagues take a journey with school leaders if they question their credibility, vision, or ability to build commitment among constituents? Lincoln’s life provides examples for school leaders on the importance of purpose, thoughtful teaming, humility and emotional intelligence, timing and change, exhibiting the capacity to grow with experience, and committing to life-long learning.

For whom is this book an essential read?

All school leaders—administrators and teacher leaders—are the target audience for Learning From Lincoln. Although school leaders tell us they are sharing the book with family, friends, and business associates, our goal was to provide a book uniquely designed for educators to support their efforts to serve teachers, students and the community. The book describes ten leadership practices based on historical examples from Lincoln’s life (emphasizing his voice). Each chapter is divided into three parts. The first portion explores episodes from Lincoln’s life that illustrate one or more of the leadership practices. Next we examine the implications of Lincoln’s example for 21st century leaders. Finally, readers are asked to reflect on history and draw implications about their work through professional development activities.

What core message do you hope all educators take away?

Leaders grow when they are reflective about their leadership behavior, and act on those reflections. In the book we invite leaders to take a deeply personal and reflective journey to explore their strengths, core values, challenges and needs based on solid research and narrative examples. However, in Learning From Lincoln our goal “is not to have readers attempt to replicate Lincoln’s style and behavior,” but rather to use his life as a source of inspiration for one’s own leadership quest. Although Lincoln’s life and leadership practices inspire us, the practices are not a recipe. Leadership is far too complex, and context alters what may work in one cultural setting, but not another. Simple formulas inhibit one’s ability to be a truly outstanding leader. Thus our core message is to “know thyself” by examining the ten leadership practices we describe, and then use selected practices as a tool to affirm one’s passions and strengths, while targeting areas to strengthen.

What was the most surprising lesson you learned as you studied the life and actions of Lincoln?

In the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy (2005), Joshua Shenk explores Lincoln’s struggles with sadness and bouts of depression. Yet, Lincoln always carried on. As we reflected on his life we were surprised by the depth of his sadness but, at the same time, inspired by how Lincoln always placed the needs of the nation above his personal tragedies and trials. Lincoln did not keep a diary, and rarely wrote about his background, so we can only speculate about his drive to survive. Certainly his behavior provided clues. Lincoln’s use of humor and storytelling, so successfully exhibited in Spielberg’s film Lincoln, is a testament to how he coped with tragedy. His ability and capacity to carry on inspires today’s school leaders, who are devoted to ensuring that all students enjoy the academic and civil freedoms they deserve.

Katie Test is a public relations and social media professional on the ASCD Communications team. Prior to joining the communications team at ASCD, she worked for D.C. Public Schools, Durham Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools as a communications staffer.