Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success

On February 12, 2017, we acknowledge Abraham Lincoln’s 208th birthday. Although we have combined the celebration for both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on President’s Day, Abraham Lincoln is worthy of commemoration and study in his own right. Indeed, much has been written about our 16th President. When I did a quick Amazon search for books on Abraham Lincoln I got 26,997 hits! You can find biographies, histories, books on government and politics, and a great number of children’s’ book recounting Lincoln’s life, Presidency and his impact on our history.

One of these thousands of books considers aspects of Lincoln’s style of leadership to inspire and guide school leaders. Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success by Harvey Alvy and Pam Roberts (ASCD, 2010) not only offers a different perspective of Lincoln, but makes connections between how Lincoln lead our country at a critical time and how we might emulate his leadership characteristics to help our students and our schools reach their full potential. The authors pose this question: What can educational leaders learn from an in-depth study of Lincoln’s leadership experiences to achieve success in today’s schools? (Alvy and Robbins, 3)

Why Lincoln? What can his life and particularly his Presidency teach us? The authors assert that Lincoln is a strong, albeit imperfect, role model for school leaders, especially as we try to change and improve our schools to meet the demands of the 21st century:

How could an individual from such humble beginnings, with a total experience of one year of formal schooling, rise to such heights? How did Lincoln remain resilient in the face of so many personal setbacks, including the death of his mother when he was 9, the loss of two children, bouts of depression throughout his life, and the incomprehensible tragedy of the Civil War? Lincoln was seemingly able to labor on individually, and he carried a nation with him. This ability to grow and persevere despite adversity is a compelling characteristic and worthy of study. Finally, Lincoln’s life is inspirational because it represents hope. Lincoln believed in people and in the possibility that great accomplishments could be realized if people believed in the power of ideas and the power of individuals to become better persons (Ferguson, 2007; Phillips, 1992). (cited in Alvy and Robbins, 5)

The authors outline 10 leadership qualities and skills and address them in individual chapters in the book. For each quality they use Lincoln’s own speeches and writings, and other documents from the historical record to illustrate how he developed and used these skills to lead our fractured nation. Then they analyze the implications of these characteristics for school leaders, reviewing the research on leadership and posing questions for thought and reflection. The 10 leadership characteristics are:

  1. Implementing and sustaining a mission and vision with focused and profound clarity
  2. Communicating ideas effectively with precise and straightforward language
  3. Building a diverse and competent team to successfully address the mission
  4. Engendering trust, loyalty, and respect through humility, humor, and personal example
  5. Leading and serving with emotional intelligence and empathy
  6. Exercising situational competence and responding appropriately to implement effective change
  7. Rising beyond personal and professional trials through tenacity, persistence, resilience, and courage
  8. Exercising purposeful visibility
  9. Demonstrating personal growth and enhanced competence as a lifetime learner, willing to reflect on and expand ideas
  10. Believing that hope can become a reality

I found the focus on Lincoln very compelling as the authors analyzed how he approached the problems that he encountered. I read his writings and speeches with a different perspective and couldn’t help comparing Lincoln’s qualities of leadership with those that I value in leaders in schools and in the community. The authors pose some thought-provoking questions for teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators as we work to help each of our students achieve the success they deserve.

The authors caution readers that “the goal of this book is not to have readers attempt to replicate Lincoln’s style and behavior. Leaders must find their own paths to success, exercising self-awareness and developing strengths, and working to improve weaknesses…However, we can find inspiration—and learn how to lead— by studying the courage and example of others.” (Alvy and Robbins, 5) We can learn from Lincoln, and other leaders that we study, but we can only work to be our best selves. And finally, the authors try to “avoid venturing into the fog that sometimes obscures the reality of Lincoln’s life—the successes and failures— with the myth of the perfect leader that began to emerge at the moment of his martyrdom.” (Alvy and Robbins, 5) Lincoln was not perfect. He made mistakes and suffered setbacks, but to me that makes him even more of an inspiration.

This book is a good read if you are looking for some historical perspectives on leadership and schools and a chance to reread excerpts of some of Lincoln’s finest speeches. The best part is that it is available for free at our OCM BOCES Professional E-book Library! Enjoy!


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