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Abraham Lincoln: Listener-in-Chief

January 10, 2013
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage
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Daniel Day-Lewis stars in "Lincoln."

Seven score and eight years ago, one of our country's iconic leaders did something extraordinary.

Fearing that the Emancipation Proclamation would not hold after the Civil War ended, the 16th president signed into law the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. But it wasn't easy. The story of Abraham Lincoln's efforts to get the necessary two-thirds majority for the amendment to pass the House of Representatives is detailed in Steven Spielberg's latest film, which is simply called Lincoln. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in an Oscar-nominated performance, the movie focuses on the last part of Lincoln's life, and it's a compelling tale even if the film takes license at times.


Something that struck me in the film was how Lincoln, a president who was trying to end the bloodshed caused by the Civil War and get a controversial amendment passed, took the time to listen to citizens. While one biographer told the Chicago Tribune that it is unlikely that Lincoln would have met with soldiers on the street as he does in the movie, "Honest Abe" did hold what were essentially "office hours" at the White House. Yes, the "Great Emancipator" held office hours—at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. nonetheless. In one scene in the film, a couple from Jefferson City, Missouri, calls on the president to help them settle a tollbooth dispute back home. Lincoln, in turn, asks the citizens to contact their congressman and tell him that he should support the 13th Amendment.

It occurred to me that many leaders, especially at large companies, do not make themselves all that accessible to their workers. Wouldn't it be great if the Big Cheese opened the door for an hour or two each week to hear from employees? I know, there's no time for that, right? Well, as John Ryan argues in an article on Forbes.com, to be a successful CEO, one must become a "chief listening officer." I couldn't agree more.

Imagine what ideas could be shared, what questions could be answered and what morale could be boosted. For employees, it would be intimidating at first, but if a CEO were committed to it, that fear would surely dissipate. I understand there are protocols and today's CEO is often on the go much more than Lincoln was, but an open ear to fresh ideas should be welcomed. HCL Technologies, a Noida, India-based information technology company, tried the strategy a few years ago to much success.

Perhaps a conversation could take place that helps put the wheels in motion for a new project or innovation.

As Lincoln said, "Whatever you are, be a good one." In terms of leadership, it seems like he came up with the perfect blueprint.

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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