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The Black, White and Grey of Leadership

May 27, 2012

Updated June 5, 2014

When it comes to trying to understand a turbulent world, with its interdependencies and illogical decisions, it’s easy to become ambivalent. What is right, what is wrong–the proverbial black versus white. As experts like to state, we live in a world of grey.

I can buy into that concept. However, there comes a time when leaders have to step up to the plate to assert themselves, to affirm what they TRULY believe in. If you pause for a moment and reflect on the current state of politics, not just in the U.S. but Canada, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, etc., you’d be hard-pressed to really understand the intrinsic value sets of national leaders.

Canadians are struggling with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who with a majority government is riding roughshod over the electorate, practicing an opaque-style of government, increasingly reminiscent of a Putinesque style of ruling autocracy. President Barack Obama’s popularity has slid significantly in the polls, reflecting his indecisiveness on a number of issues.

In addition to being a long-time student of leadership, I have become a student of history (I detested history in high school and university). It’s amazing what you can learn about leadership from reading about the past. Yes, folks, history does repeat itself–so much for the naïve belief that people learn from experience.

I’ve spoken in previous posts about two great American presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt, the former a Democrat and the latter (FDR’s uncle) a Republican. I’ve wanted for some time to understand better for what Abraham Lincoln stood, especially since he faced the greatest crisis any of America’s 44 presidents have ever confronted. So I hit the history books. I came away with the same respect for Lincoln I had previously, except that I now better understand his politics when it came to slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, the tall gangly, flat-footed walker who in the 1850s was perceived as the unlikely leader of what became the new Republican party. Yet he persevered, enthralling people with his powerful oratories and compelling stories. Lincoln strongly opposed slavery yet was smart enough to understand that to end this vile practice, timing was of the essence.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln:

The pinnacle of his success at Cooper Union in New York on the evening of February 27, 1860, before a zealous crowd of more than fifteen hundred people, Lincoln delivered what the New York Tribune called “one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this city” in defense of Republican principles and the need to confine slavery to the places where it already existed.”

Note the last part of the sentence. Lincoln was less about actually abolishing slavery as he was about preventing its spread. He knew that outside his home state of Illinois that he wasn’t the number one choice among voters. Indeed, he had already failed in two attempted Senate races. His political experience consisted of only one term in Congress a dozen years earlier. His three contenders for leadership of the Republican Party had vastly more political experience.

Of side interest, Great Britain banned the trading of slaves in 1807 through the Slave Trade Act. This encompassed the entire British Empire. However, slavery itself was not banned. It wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was finally decreed as illegal through the Slavery Abolition Act.

In my home country, as much as Canadians decried slavery we need to look in the mirror when it comes to how blacks have been treated in Canada since the 1800s. A case in point is the small province of Nova Scotia (population one million), located on the Atlantic coast. The Underground Railroad brought former slaves to Nova Scotia, where they continue to be treated as inferior citizens, relegating them to slums. Racial tensions prevail.

I continue to have difficulty understanding how the supposedly greatest nation on the planet was so attached to slavery, and which still seems to be unable to let go of black versus white; there’s no grey in this story. I vividly recall the 2008 presidential campaign, during which racial commentary, while thinly veiled on some U.S. networks, exploded into the open when journalists interviewed Americans on the street.

Over 150 years have elapsed since President Lincoln saved the Union and abolished slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which finally became law in December 1865. Henry Garnet, fugitive slave turned abolitionist, was the first black to speak at the Capital Dome in Washington on February 12, 1865. Here’s an example of Garnet’s oratorical skill:

Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been- you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. Remember that you are four million! … Awake, awake! Let your motto be resistance, resistance, resistance!

Abraham Lincoln was a human being. Just like you and me. He certainly wasn’t perfect. One problem with American society is the propensity to eulogize once-great leaders to the point of saint-dom. Lincoln, however, knew right from wrong, black from white, and that the way forward for the United States was to stop the spread of slavery. Like any politician, centuries ago or in 2012, Lincoln walked a tightrope on the issue of slavery and its relationship to the secessionist desires of Southerners.

With that said, Bryan Prince notes in his excellent book A Shadow on the Household that Lincoln shared the philosophy that blacks could never be part of American society, that their future lay in resettling in their own colony. This was the so-called Liberia plan. The idea of transporting blacks, born on American soil, to a northern African country half a world away distressed many. This policy literally tore families apart, and left blacks, despite existing in horrendous conditions in the U.S., feeling that even Abolitionists didn’t want them to be part of American society.

This is a dimension of President Abraham Lincoln, and the United States as a collective, that is not well understood.

I wonder sometimes if all the hate and political animosity that’s generated in America were bottled up and directed towards the economy what the result would be. Pretty awesome, I’d think. The same applies to Canada, but on a much smaller scale.

What do you see, black, white or grey when it comes to interacting with the world, whether at work or in your community?

When you’re dealing with people, are you truly able to see beyond physical color, or beyond disabilities, or beyond one’s religious or sexual beliefs?

If our planet is to evolve positively, we have some thinking to do.

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable – a most sacred right – a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.
– Abraham Lincoln



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