In national crises, from the Civil War to Pearl Harbor to 9/11, wise leaders exhibit qualities that fit the moment. I have spoken often of the leadership of Abraham Lincoln by pointing to his words in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. But in this current crisis, I am drawn to a different aspect of Lincoln’s leadership.
The Union army won a momentous triumph at Gettysburg on July 1-3 1863. But victorious General George Meade failed to go after Robert E. Lee’s battered Confederate army as it sought to return to Virginia. Lincoln waited, perplexed that Meade did not pursue Lee, who was both stalled by heavy rains and unable to ford the raging Potomac River. Finally, eleven days after Gettysburg, Meade mounted a chase. When he finally approached the river, there was no one to fight: the last of Lee’s troops crossed over during the night.
Lincoln took up his pen: “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape—He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.” Lincoln concluded, “Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
I will not forget the moment at the Library of Congress when a curator allowed me to see Lincoln’s letter. On the envelope, he wrote, “never sent, or signed.”
Self-discipline. This is a leadership quality needed now – in government, business, media, and communities. To not speak or send the gratuitous dig, the polarizing spin, the ad hominem slur, is a rare and desperately needed characteristic of leadership.
At this moment of high anxiety, we need leaders with self-restraint, even as you and I strive to cultivate self-discipline within ourselves.
Recommended Reading and Resources
As we navigate these uncertain times together, we recommend the discussion and Readings below as both an encouragement and catalyst for reflection.
- American Ulysses | A Trinity Forum Evening Conversation with Ron White.
- Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man | A Trinity Forum Reading by Elton Trueblood, introduced by Dr. Ron White.
- Politics, Morality, and Civility | A Trinity Forum Reading by Vaclav Havel, introduced by Al McDonald and Cherie Harder.
- Politics and the English Language | A Trinity Forum Reading by George Orwell, introduced by Peter Wehner.
On Friday, May 8 The Trinity Forum partnered with Pepperdine School of Public Policy and Montgomery Bell Academy to host best-selling author and historian Ron White on the need and nature of wise leadership in tumultuous times. Ron’s decades of deep study of the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and others gives him unique insight about what it takes to lead wisely and well amidst conflicts and chaos.