presidents

Presidential: The Great Abstract

According to theSOI.com, a web based questionnaire used by Fortune 100 technology companies to identify their leaders’ Styles Of Influence™, people have four major internal scales that dictate how they interact with others: cognitive ideas, relational emotions, goal forcefulness and detail order. Each bucket of styles comes with its own range of impacts.

Those who score on the highest side of the cognitive scale are considered to be abstract thinkers. Concrete thinkers are on the other end of the same scale. The assessment states:

“An abstract person understands the importance of an idea intuitively from a principle or value-driven perspective. Because of this, they are more likely to grasp how one idea can affect another, changing the meaning of both…This person will tend to speak in abstractions and metaphors in order to inspire or motivate.”

Writers tend to be abstracts. Lawyers too. And innovators. They’re blue sky thinkers who can connect thoughts with ideas to weave a reality in their mind that can define a world that exists or one that needs to be created. I scored a five on the cognitive scale. It goes to five. It’s not a measure of intelligence. It’s how you think. Not how well. On the other end, for details, I’m a two. Which is why I couldn’t tell you where my keys are right now if you gave me a thousand dollars to do it without wandering around to any number of likely locations.

Abraham Lincoln was an abstract too. He existed almost entirely in the world of the big picture. He spoke incessantly in metaphors and stories. He almost never talked about a person without weaving them or their way of thought into a broader framework of a network of ideas.

Like Churchill, Lincoln had a savant like recall. From a young age, he would entertain whole parties late into the night by reciting, word for word, one of his favorite plays or chapters from his favorite books. He had the ability to keep an enormous amount of information in the front of his mind and recall it when it was most appropriate and attach it to something relevant and easily digested by the room.

Also, like the assessment’s description of abstracts, Lincoln had an unequaled grasp of the principles behind the ideas he toiled with and how they ran into and out of each other.

At Gettysburg, he lead with “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He called on the foundational ideals of our forefathers and linked them to the sacrifice of Gettysburg and even more broadly, the Civil War. He drove home the message that this effort was a continuation of the work of our founders that all agreed was virtuous.

It’s important to remember that the outcomes of that horrific war hadn’t been written into the textbooks then. And it hung more in the balance than most of us are comfortable with understanding. Less than a century after Jefferson wrote the words, the very notion of the viability of democracy and the principles of liberty were still in question. This America wasn’t permanent yet. Those tiring of war or politically opposed to the cause of Union or abolition needed to understand what was at stake; the very question of whether government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The people of his time understood Lincoln’s abstract message, as has history. His ability to deliver it in a clear, succinct fashion in less words than I’ve taken to tell you about it was what made Lincoln so enormously effective. His mind, in a real and material sense, had a firmer grasp on the ideas of the moment than those who opposed him. And a way to express it so that all who heard, then and centuries since, could grasp what he wanted them to grasp.

He did all of this with no formal education. He taught himself to read. He passed the bar exam in Illinois when he was 27 and began to practice law.

In 1858, the uneducated upstart politician who had only held office as a one term congressmen a decade earlier took on Stephen Douglas, a titan of the Senate. Perhaps no instance in Lincoln’s life, or our history, shows more clearly the power of a superior mind. Douglas had been a member of the Senate for the better part of the past two decades and was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. Lincoln, was a nobody.

Imagine, if you can, the gravity of someone no one had ever heard of debating a Ted Kennedy or a Bob Dole and beating them so soundly on substance alone that it propelled him to national attention. Lincoln stood, awkward with his freakishly tall frame and ill-fitting clothing, delivering in his high-pitched voice words of heavy consequence.

Lincoln, on slavery in debate against Douglas:

“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest”

Slavery is bad, not just because it’s bad for those in bondage. It’s bad for what it does to even good men. It’s bad for the soul of liberty. And it risks all that we are by its very existence.

Argue against that.

He forced the recognition, and eventual reconciliation that ideas we hold true and dear to our culture were at deep odds with the nature of our actions. And that great hypocrisy not only was present but would eventually undo all that was done that made us who we believed we were. It can’t be overstated that the substance of his mind and his words were judged against such unfair standards, yet still are preserved for all history to see. He was a once in a generation mind. At a once in a generation moment.

Lincoln started in a dirt floor in Kentucky, lost most elections he ever ran in and was the third choice on the first ballot for the 1860 Republican National Convention. He won on a later vote with most voting against their first choice’s rival, not for him. He ended up on Mount Rushmore. Carved into that great granite facade, if Lincoln looked to his right, he would find men who originated from wealth and privilege and education, yet had no greater impact on their country or the legacy of America than he did.

It is literally accurate to say that no man’s arc of existence bent so far from humble beginnings towards the great impact of justice for all time.

And it was all in his head.

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3 replies »

  1. We desperately need our great abstract thinkers to step into the political process, to run for office, to engage American citizens to strive for a greater democrcay. I cannot hear their voices in that arena. I only hear the din of fear, and desire for control or gain. Our great abstract thinkers seem to be standing on the outside, looking in.

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  2. Great post Sean. I’m a bit of a Lincoln obsessive and read this post with particular interest. I agree with your view about Lincoln’s way of thinking distinguishing him as a leader, and exemplifying what all great leaders have in common. Particularly, I think “abstract” thinkers are able to take the long view and endure short terms hits and setbacks because they have an overall strategic goal of where they want to end up. Lincoln demonstrated this time and again (and was often criticized for being indecisive or slow to act, but history proved he was deliberate and intentional). Not to kick off a partisan discussion but I think Obama, while certainly no Lincoln and far from perfect, will be appraised in time as an abstract thinker who took a long view.

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