Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Leadership Lesson #6: The Indispensable Habit of Every Great Leader

Abraham Lincoln is an intriguing figure. One of his best friends said that ambition was the little engine inside Lincoln that never stopped. More than anything in the world, Lincoln wanted to leave behind some grand legacy by which future generations might remember him.

If that's true--and there's every reason to believe it is, then the man who became our sixteenth president must have spent the greater part of his life in frustration. That's because the deck in Lincoln's play for greatness was substantially stacked against him.

I'm not talking about his backwoods upbringing or his lack of a formal education when I say that, although both were enormous hurdles for him. I refer instead, to the daunting odds Lincoln faced when it came to seeking greatness in his chosen profession of politics. For most of his adult life, Lincoln was a Whig in a predominantly Democratic state, Illinois. When he ran for the US Senate against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 and engaged in a series of debates throughout the state, Lincoln knew that he could win the popular vote and would probably still lose the office in an era when elections were advisory and the Illinois state legislature, where the real election happened, was controlled by the Democrats.

Yet in 1860, with no administrative experience at all and his country facing the most perilous crisis since its birthing, Lincoln's "little engine" propelled him into the White House.

It seems that shortly after taking the office, Lincoln began expressing the wish that he was doing something besides leading the country in the bloodiest war of its history. His frankly gruesome features seemed to soften into saintliness and he seemed to grow more beautiful with the gashing hammer blows of bitter experience and frustration.

How did Lincoln cope, overcoming himself and overwhelming circumstances to lead with both humility and shrewdness? One of the answers, I see after a lifetime of studying him, is that Lincoln, always a religious skeptic whose faith was nearly robbed from him by the legalistic spell under which his father Thomas seems to have fallen, turned to God in prayer.

Most leaders are ambitious. But every leader, sooner or later, learns the limits of what ambition can accomplish. Eventually, they come to the end of their resources. They even come to an end to the helpfulness of advice that trusted counselors provide to them. That's when wise leaders turn to the God we know in Jesus Christ and they pray.

Jimmy Carter, a man whose unwillingness to delegate responsibility or authority to others hampered his effectiveness, nonetheless had several important accomplishments during his time in office. Like Dwight Eisenhower, for example, Carter managed to prevent the country from being engaged in a single clash of arms with a foreign country during his tenure, he established full diplomatic relations with China, and he oversaw the promulgation of the Camp David Accords, for example. In his newest book, Carter reveals that he, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and a guy of intelligence and experience as a naval commander, businessperson, and governor, never prayed so much as he did during his four years as president.

The indispensable habit of every effective leader is prayer.

Skeptical? Consider what Archbishop William Temple said to those who dismissed as coincidence his claims of answered prayers: "When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't."

In one of my favorite books, Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby says that true prayer happens only when two elements are in place:

  • Faith, trust in God
  • Desperation, the realization that we can accomplish no good thing without utter submission to God
Want to accomplish worthwhile things as a leader? Learn to pray.

[In the next installment: The First Thing a Leader Must Do to Get People to Follow]

[Here are links to the previous installments:
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders
The First Thing Every Leader Must Do
The Inefficiency Every Leader Must Embrace to Be Successful
The Hardest Thing for Me to Do as a Leader]

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