Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
In this episode, we’re exploring a question from a friend of the Cottage about Lincoln’s self-doubt and what it means to be qualified for the presidency. Encounters along the way include rowdy 1860s politics, imposter syndrome, the Constitution, and a formula for courage. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins
JC: This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us
CH: Let’s take that half hour now.
JC: For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Did Lincoln ever worry he was unqualified to be President?”
CH: This question comes to us from a friend of the Cottage, Chris White. Chris is a comedian and journalist we’ve worked with on our Two Faces Comedy series, which is a partnership with the DC Improv. Chris is the Director of Creative Marketing there. We first met Chris several years ago, when he interviewed our CEO for a podcast of his own on presidents and humor. Side note: according to Chris, Lincoln was the funniest. And from there we developed the Two Faces Comedy series together. Chris asked us this question in a Facebook Q&A we had set up for the show, and we wanted to address it in more depth.
JC: To get started, we reached out to Dr. Jared Peatman, a historian who works at the intersection of history and leadership development programs with his company Four Score Consulting. Jared uses Lincoln and other presidents as a model to study leadership. We asked him what he thought: was Lincoln worried he was unqualified?
Jared Peatman: That’s an interesting question because I – you know there’s, you know, all of these ideas out there that if you compare the two presidents, Lincoln for the Union and Davis for the Confederacy that of course by comparison, you know, if you just look at resumes for example, that Lincoln does appear to be unqualified in 1860, 1861. Did he feel he was unqualified? I think no. Because, you know, he ran for the presidency, you know, he sought the nomination, and this was something that was in, in the works for a while. You can see from his reaction to his loss to Douglas in 1858 in that Senate campaign that he is already thinking about a bigger game. So this is not something that he sort of stumbled into, this is not something that happened at the last minute, you know, he is really preparing for that. So, no, I think he feels like he’s not just qualified, but the best person to be the president in 1860, 1861.
CH: We also spoke with Dr. Michael Green, a professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860.
Michael Green: You know, I think it’s two questions in a way. Worried about whether he would win. I’ll come back to that. Because in terms of worried about whether he could do it… There’s an old story of where he’s, I guess, on a train. And he’s goes: “My wife thinks I could be president, can you imagine a sucker like me being president?” And we thought, for a long time, I think a lot of people thought, oh, by sucker he means the PT Barnum sucker who’s born every minute. When in fact, sucker was a common term used to describe Illinoisans. An Illinoisan? Like me?! But if you’re Lincoln at that point, and you look at who has been president in his lifetime, were he to study it, I could see him saying to himself: they’re not that special, I should be able to handle this. So, in that sense, no. In terms of worrying about winning the election – he definitely saw this, for the country, as a critical election. So if you go back before that, he’s worried in the sense that he is trying to make sure Republicans stay united, he’s writing back and forth to people, he’s active in terms of trying to secure Republican votes. So I, I think he was worried in the way that any politician should be. And in Nevada we have a very successful politician, he was a two-term senator, two-term governor. Guy named Richard Bryan who has a favorite phrase: there are two ways to run for office: unopposed or scared. I think Lincoln understood that concept.
JC: We also asked Michael to tell us more about what being qualified for president meant in 1860. What were people looking for?
MG: You know, I think in the 1850s and 60s, voters were looking for whoever belonged to their party, or stuck to their ideology. And you look at people’s qualifications in that period, you get Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, who was supremely well qualified. You look at his background, he’s been in Congress, he’s been a Secretary of State, he was Minister to England and Minister to Russia as well. So here’s someone who certainly has the qualifications. But he was nominated in large part because he was out of the country during the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and all of the controversy of the mid-1850s. “So what is your qualification, Mr. Buchanan?” “I wasn’t here.” And in the case of Republicans, yes, ideology plays a role. But as with Democrats, so with them. It’s also a matter of who can win. And after the 1856 election where John Fremont frankly ran better than a first-time political party with a first-time candidate had a right to, Republicans were thinking: well, if we can swing these states that we would now call Midwestern, like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and keep going east to Pennsylvania, we can win. Well, that meant Lincoln was qualified in ways that others weren’t. Was he electable? Was he with the program, so to speak? And did he have geography on his side? And the answer to all three of those was yes, which made him a good candidate. But again, if he had not checked the right boxes, I’d say, for what Republicans were really looking for, then it doesn’t matter how great a guy he is.
JC: Yeah, and so the boxes are: can get us the Midwest – what else?
MG: The boxes would be geography, getting the Midwest. Ideology, he’s a Republican. But he’s also not too far out in one direction. He has not referred to an “irrepressible conflict,” or a higher law than the Constitution. And at the same time, he has made clear he is anti-slavery. So those work out. Another factor in the election, and this has over the years gotten less attention than it should have, I think it’s getting more attention in recent years – is that nickname Honest Abe serves him very well. You have Seward coming from a political machine in New York that was pretty corrupt. Which is one of the things, frankly, that makes Seward so appealing to me. Salmon Chase had pulled plenty of shenanigans to get himself elected, and James Buchanan’s administration had been considered quite corrupt. And Republicans were going to run against that. And it’s hard to run against that when your candidate has been accused of corruption.
JC: Talking with Michael about the election of 1860 got me thinking about parallels with the tenor of national politics in 2020. The situation around Lincoln’s election reminds me a lot of today’s conversation around politics where there are folks who have two very different sets of values or qualifications for what they’re looking for in a president that are totally incompatible with each other, right? The Republicans in Lincoln’s time can’t pick a candidate who isn’t anti-slavery. And the folks who are – end up seceding cannot possibly vote for a candidate who is anti-slavery.
MG: Oh, absolutely. And you know, I think there is more of this in American history than a lot of people realize. You go back to the beginning, and the origins of political parties, and one of the more famous lines from that period is when Alexander Hamilton is endorsing Jefferson for president over Aaron Burr. He said, you know, “Jefferson is a speculative theorist, Burr is an absolute terrorist.” Well, he meant terrorist in the context of the French Revolution, not how we say it today, but obviously that culminated in events that made Lin Manuel Miranda possible. Now, what we tend to forget is that we have the beginning of this republican experiment, republican with a lowercase r, and to both sides, the other side was endangering the existence of the country. In 1860 that was literally true. You can go back and forth on what you think of more recent times, but you do see this in our history. And there was literally nothing Lincoln could have done, I think, to get votes where he did not get them.
CH: Michael also pointed out some other major things that were different about how politics was conducted in the 1860s than we might expect today.
MG: You know, I think politics at that time was a lot more meaningful in people’s lives than today. And you know we tend to think: what?! Don’t we all care about this? The truth is that there are millions of Americans right now, who are not paying the slightest bit of attention to what candidates are saying and when they go to the voting booth or they – it’s time for them to mark their ballot – that’s when they’re going to make a decision. Or at least, they’ve made their decision and they’re not thinking about it. And in the 19th century, it’s much more of a social event. A political rally was a chance to get together. To meet people. There’s a marvelous book by John Grinspan, talking about this, where essentially it was a way to make friends. But back then it was more the equivalent of a party, in the sense of getting together and having fun. And I think that that’s something we have lost that would be beneficial to get back.
JC: Maybe someday we’ll get closer to putting the “party” back into “political party,” but in the meantime, we had more questions. If Lincoln thought he was probably ready to be president, what was it about him that made him qualified? Which of his attributes made him a good choice for president?
CH: Michael said it was partly Lincoln’s organizational ability – by which he meant Lincoln’s ability to organize other people around him, not his neat and tidy desk. Lincoln famously had a disorganized approach to the objects in his space. Michael then added a few other qualities.
MG: Well, I would start with organizational ability, for one thing. And it relates to something else about him, which is that while I don’t think he was necessarily arrogant, he was supremely self-confident. And self-confidence– yeah, it can be a danger when you’re president. You’re too certain that you’re always right, but Lincoln wasn’t that way. He was self-confident, but he knew he could be wrong, and he knew he could fail. And I think of the story of when he tripped after the 1858 election – he said: well it’s a stumble, not a fall. He could stumble and frankly you see this unfold in the war – I’ll jump ahead in the story but we know how it comes out – during the war, he ends up with his top general being a guy who was accused, correctly, of drinking too much and accused of messing up at Shiloh. The number two guy was sent home because he was convinced there were 200, 250,000 Confederates over the hill from him in Kentucky. He could understand failure, and the ability to bounce back from it. He had the confidence to do that himself. And himself was someone of great common sense and adaptability. And if you look at the campaign, he adapted. If you look at his governing, he adapted. And that part of his background – having to adjust to difficult circumstances – really served him well.
JC: Jared added –
JP: But in terms of what makes him qualified to hold this position- I think it’s because he’s very firm in that vision that he has. He knows where the nation needs to go and he thinks he has ideas about how to move the nation in that, in that direction. Now, some people may disagree but, you know, some people may think that Lincoln’s primary purpose was just saving the union, but when Lincoln ran for the presidency, that’s not what was at stake. When he ran for the presidency in 1860, you know, the big game was what’s the future of slavery in this country? And I think he feels that he’s got a vision of how to do it, or what to do, going forward, and that’s what gives him the confidence. I think it’s a moral center, it’s a vision for the nation.
CH: Lincoln’s vision would be sorely tested through the difficulties of his presidency. We were wondering – there’s all these candidates running for president in 1860 – was it even possible for anyone to be qualified for the Civil War, and for what happened next?
MG: Oh, my. I don’t think so. No one, I think, foresaw it. That’s one thing. If you look at their backgrounds, their qualifications, you can say: well, you know, someone who was not running for President of the United States, Jefferson Davis, seems well qualified, if anyone is. You take various Republican candidates, you don’t really have someone of Davis’ background. You say: alright, well someone like Seward who’s had two terms in the Senate, two terms as Governor of New York, very well read – this is someone who would seem pretty well qualified. But you don’t really know it until afterward. And in terms of the qualifications – no, I don’t think anybody would stand out and you would say: Oh, that is the person to lead the country through this. Interestingly, I think if you reversed it and said: who isn’t qualified to lead the country through this? Lincoln probably would have been on that list. You know, one term in the House of Representatives?
JC: Given all the unexpected challenges Lincoln faced during his presidency, what was it that got him through it after all? Jared shared some insight:
JP: Well, there’s really two things, I think, that are so important in those moments. One is just the resilience, and so we talk about some models for resilience and resilience is an interesting thing to – to think about. You know, a gentleman named Michael Pimentel [sp?] who I’ve done programs with before talks about resilience and he says you know when you say resilience what comes to mind? And oftentimes people say the ability to bounce back. And he says well, that’s an okay definition for resilience if you’re talking about a couch cushion. Right? You sit on it, it bounces back, that’s all you really want from a couch cushion. But in human beings you want more from that, in human beings you don’t want them just to bounce back from an adversity, you want them to actually grow from having gone through this adversity, to learn something that strengthens them. I think we see that in Lincoln. You know, Lincoln does have all these adversities in his life, from – you know, whether you believe the stories about Ann Rutledge, his first supposed true lover and you know, and all of those things or not. But that story, the story of losing Eddie, his second son in the early 1850s, all of the political losses that he has. And even later, into the White House, losing Willie in 1862. Lincoln’s resilience is something that he grows from overtime, learning from these adversities. The Lincoln, and the inner strength that you see in Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War, to continue carrying on, is very different than what you saw in Lincoln in the 1830s and 1840s. So that’s a – you know, that’s a real way that he’s grown over time. So resilience is a huge piece of that. The second part, I think, is that, you know, when you’re going through a tough time, you know, what’s the network around you? And so one of the critical things we always talk about at the Cottage too are: who are those people that are kind of in Lincoln’s ear? And you know, Lincoln is a guy who takes his own counsel a lot. That’s part of the reason I think the Cottage is so critical for him, he can actually shut out some of the noise there and do that. But at the same time, he is somebody who’s constantly reaching out to the people around him to get their perspectives, their input, to see things in a different light. And that’s also a critical part of handling it when things aren’t quite going your way. You know, to get out of your own head, see things from another perspective, maybe get input and help from these other people.
CH: We wanted to learn more about how self-doubt manifests, for leaders and for everyone, and the challenges it can present. We spoke with Nancy Belmont, a coach, facilitator, and artist, with whom we’ve worked on many projects, including our Students Opposing Slavery program. Nancy works to promote human flourishing. So we asked her: what are some common ways she sees self-doubt show up?
Nancy Belmont: In my coaching this comes up all the time. This is a very common thing. So, if any of you listening have had this experience, you are definitely not alone. Imposter syndrome is a real thing. And what I find is that people really experience this when they start to compare themselves to others. You know, they’re looking from the outside into someone else’s world, and of course they don’t see all the failures, they don’t see all the strife that they went through to get to where they are. And so they judge themselves really critically. Sometimes that judging sounds like a voice inside your head, and we all have to just be really mindful of our self-talk. So that self-talk can sound like: “Oh you’re not qualified. Who do you think you are, to be able to do that? You’re not good enough.”
JC: When we talked with Jared about imposter syndrome, we talked about how some folks worry they can’t do something before they even start doing it, and other folks start to worry once they’ve begun and find themselves amidst it all.
JP: So I think you see that certainly, you know, this impostor syndrome, you know, “I’m gonna get found out.” And then you see on the other hand, you know, as you said, the opposite approach, and I think this is maybe what Lincoln might have experienced a little bit. Lincoln felt qualified going into the job. Then gets into the job and realizes how big and overwhelming the job is, and maybe has self-doubts about, you know, can he actually pull this off? You know, at different times going forward. And I think that’s common for folks as well. I think that’s particularly common when you have, as so often happens in organizations, people are promoted because of their technical ability to perform whatever job, and now they’re promoted into a leadership position, essentially an HR position, and you know they start to have doubts about: how do I work with this, you know, team? How do I work with these people? And not just on the mechanics of whatever I was doing before?
NB: So it’s very common, and I think the cure to that would be mindfulness. You know, what are the voices in my head? What am I saying to myself? And once you start to recognize what it is that you’re saying to yourself in those conversations, then you start to have power over it. What I find very sad for most of us is that we don’t even recognize that those are conversations and that that’s not us. Right? But if we’re mindful and we can separate out that thing that we’re telling ourselves from reality and from ourselves, then we can look at it, distance ourselves from it, and say: well is that true or not? Do I want to believe that or not? Is that serving me or not? And that’s where the power comes. So, I guess when I say: is it serving me? I guess… I’m not talking about the ego. You know, is it fulfilling my ego? And who I think I should be for everybody else? But – is it helping me step into my greatness? Is it empowering me to be bold and take risks, and to become all of who I’m supposed to be? Or is it keeping me small, is it making me feel mediocre, is it allowing the excuses to let the outside have power over me? Rather than for me to have power over the outside.
CH: We asked Nancy for more information on how to fix self-doubt – or at least to manage it. Is this something people can get better at, and if so, how?
NB: I’ll go back to mindfulness. I think mindfulness is one of the most important pieces of leadership. And I’ll lump reflection into that as well, and so, when we’re not mindful – and you can practice mindfulness in a number of different ways, you can practice it by journaling, you can practice it by meditation, noticing, you know, what are all the things happening around me? For just starting out, I think a great practice is to journal and to spend five minutes on reflection maybe at the end of the day. How did that meeting go, what was I thinking in that meeting, did I act, did I not act? Did I speak up, did I not speak up? And start to explore why. And then as you get better and better and more practiced at being mindful, you’ll recognize the thoughts as they come. And you’ll be able to make decisions in the moment for: how do I want to behave right now? So most of us, when we’re just starting out, we’re like journaling: and we’re like: ah, I wish I would have done this in the meeting. Why didn’t I do that? You know, oh, I could have said this, or I could have behaved this way. And that’s a great start. And then when you get more and more practiced, you’ll be able to shorten the time between reflection and when you’re able to act.
CH: Jared added –
JP: That’s one of the great things about emotional intelligence is it – emotional intelligence is not something that’s just innate. They’re skills, you know, that people have. And some people have these skills at higher levels, kind of, naturally than others. But if you’re not someone that happens to, they are skills that you can develop over, over time. There are a lot of different models of emotional intelligence out there, five or, five or six you know, kind of ones that come with assessments. And what’s interesting too is that most of them have a number of different areas, the one that I work with has 15 different areas. And you may be somebody who’s really good in some of the areas but not so strong in some of the other areas and so it‘s not just a broad question of: I have good or I have poor emotional intelligence. The question more is, you know, what particular skills are strengths? And what particular skills are areas where I maybe need to spend some time developing. I think the critical component is a lot of times people say: oh shucks, I need to get better at that. And that’s really easy to say. You know, the challenge is to really kind of target and identify, you know, what am I going to do, what are a couple of strategies? You know, this meeting that I have next Tuesday, what thing am I going to commit to doing in that meeting, what little change in behavior that, so that it becomes concrete? That’s the challenge.
JC: That’s one of the things that’s always helpful for me to try and remember, that emotional skills are learnable skills too. Nancy agreed that small, concrete steps can help you get from where you are to where you want to be. How can we reframe our thinking?
NB: I think it depends on how you interact with it. Right? So, if I say: I have self-doubt, so let me challenge myself. Let me challenge myself and see if I can do this. Like, that’s exciting! If I say: you know, I have self-doubt and so it’s stopping me and disempowering me, then that’s bad. And so I think, you know it’s just with fear, any kind of fear. It’s how we interact with it that’s important. So I think that is the key. You know, if we can sit at the table with fear and say: hello fear, thank you for coming me – coming here. You being here tells me that this is really important to me. I’m gonna allow you to sit here at the table with me and I’m gonna move forward anyway. That is a great place to be. So again it’s recognizing: okay, there’s something here that tells me this is important and I’m gonna move forward. And the way that I like to help people practice this is, I like to tell them: let’s design experiments. Right, so – we don’t have to totally transform who we are overnight, we can try a little experiment. Well let’s just see, if I speak up at the meeting, are people going to listen to me, or not? You know, it doesn’t have to be some full scale change in ourselves. The other thing I think is important is thinking about what your relationship with failure is. Because if you have a relationship with failure and you think failure is bad, you’re likely not going to challenge yourself. If you can start to embrace failure as growth then it gets a lot more fun. Like how many times can I fail and still keep going?
CH: I’m usually not very comfortable giving advice. It’s just really not my thing. But I once said something to my sister that she says, even years later, really stuck with her. She was worried and afraid that she might fail at her job. And she remembers me saying: “So what if you fail?” In her mind, that would have been catastrophic. And she gives our conversation credit for helping her see that it really wasn’t. That everyone fails at something, sometime. I think it really helped normalize that for her. In our conversation with Nancy, she told us about her courage formula, that she uses to talk about this with people she works with. When Passion is greater than Fear, that equals Courage.
NB: So the formula gets more complicated as we start to unpack it, but there are three main fears that hold us back as human beings. One is the fear of not being liked. One is the fear of not being right. And one is the fear of losing control. And so really, if you take all the fears, other than like: I’m being chased by a tiger, what do I do? You know, all the, the upper level fears, they usually funnel down into one of those three categories. And once you start to realize that that’s what’s going on, then you can interact with the fear. And so then the lack of courage often shows up as the stories. So it’s: Oh, I don’t have my degree yet. Or, you know, I don’t have enough inventory to go sell my jewelry or, you know, I don’t have enough years of experience to be a leader. You know, our fears are usually paper tigers. And so that’s why I think it’s helpful just to really drill down and understand, what is it? What is it I’m afraid of? What is it that I’m afraid of? Why am I afraid of that? How can I interact with that fear in a different way?
JC: If we turn to the other side of the formula, we’re looking at Passion. What is it that’s driving action? Myself or others? We asked Jared to speak on the balance between ambition and service in leadership.
JP: Yeah, so there’s a, there’s a – when Lincoln becomes sort of depressed in the 1840s and, you know, there’s some talk that maybe he’s even suicidal, I’m not quite sure what to make of that, honestly – but he says at that point that, you know, the worst part about if he were to die at that moment would be that there was – that he had done nothing that people would ever remember. And he’s kind of combining those two things, right? His own personal ambition, but also that, you know, through good works for others, service to other people. And you know, I think you probably have to have both to rise to – or should have both, to rise to these higher, sort of, levels. You clearly have to have ambition because becoming CEO of a large organization, becoming a senator, becoming a governor, becoming a president is a lot of work and there’s a lot downsides to it, frankly. So you have to have that ambition. But at the same time, you know, I think the only ones that are really effective at it are also ones that want to make a larger contribution.
JC: Yeah, this is a personal bias on my part but I think that the – if you’re gonna go through all those unpleasantnesses, right? To get to a position on top, that the fire of: I want to get there because I want people to look at me, burns out a lot faster than: I need to do that because I like, really have to do something to help people out, or fix the country or whatever.
CH: Nancy said that the combination of the two is what makes the most potent fuel for that fire.
NB: So if you have one without the other, then things are going to be off balance. So if I have a ton of ambition but I don’t have service, then my ambition is going to get me into trouble, right? If I’m all about service but I don’t have enough ambition, I’m just gonna say yes to everything and I’m not going to be the master of my own destiny. And so I think when you put those two concepts together, ambition and service, how do I do both of those things at the same time? How do I succeed and be humble? You know, I think putting those seemingly opposite concepts together brings a lot of energy, a lot of creative energy, to think about: how could I be in a different way, that’s gonna serve me and my ambitions and serve the people that I’m here to serve?
CH: Technically there are only three qualifications to be president. They’re listed in the Constitution as 1) you have to be a natural-born citizen of the United States, 2) you have to have been a resident for 14 years, and 3) you have to be at least 35 years old.
JC: But at the same time, there’s a whole slew of other attributes that nearly all of our past presidents carry – they’ve been for the most part Protestant, heterosexual, and white, and exclusively, they’ve been male. Many have military experience. What’s the deal with these social, unspoken expectations? Are these also qualifications for the presidency?
CH: We asked Jared to speak to this question.
JP: Yeah, so, what’s kind of interesting, you know, with the Founders of course, is when they write the Constitution, there’s only one option of who’s going to be the first president, it’s George Washington. You know, when you look at the Constitution, that’s why there’s so little on it, they all know who the first guy’s gonna be. And they just sort of assume – so what precedes the Constitution is the Articles of Confederation. And it lasts for eleven years and that’s it. I don’t know that they thought the Constitution was going to last for, you know, 230-odd years that we’ve had it at this point, without major change. The qualifications question is really kind of interesting. You know, when Lincoln looks at it and says essentially: yeah, I’m qualified for that job. So there’s a couple interesting things about that. And this is typical guy behavior, right? So there’s a study that came out a few years ago, that if a position is advertised in an organization, that women typically want to be 120% qualified for the job before they apply. They want to really know that they can do a good job, they have the experience, and they are a great candidate for the job and then they apply. Your typical dude – you get to about 30% qualified and that’s at the point where they apply for the jobs. So it’s really funny, I think, and it’s amusing about guys. You can see, obviously, the problems that that creates in society, right? Sort of, along the way. But I think part of what’s going on with Lincoln is, Lincoln looks at who’s come before him in 1857 and 1861 he sees James Buchanan, who is, you know, by most accounts, one of the very worst presidents that we’ve ever had, if not the worst, and Lincoln says: if this guy is qualified for the job, then I most certainly am qualified for the job. I think the challenge you get into when you add qualifications to things, you know, whatever they may be, I think while adding more qualifications may be intended to make the candidate more qualified, perhaps more diverse, than they have been in the past, I could see a lot of situations where you could have the opposite of that actually occurring. You know, where it could sort of institutionalize some of the things, it could perpetuate some of the, you know, the negative parts of the people elected to the presidency that we’ve seen in the past. So it’s a, it’s a tough thing to think about. What are the qualifications of the president?
JC: In discussing the same question, Michael said that, by and large, most presidents are average presidents. Which means that, if you’re not in these categories that have been unspoken qualifications, you should be encouraged, because you have just as much a chance as any of them of being able to do the job of the presidency.
MG: Another thing I like to point out to students – you take Lincoln’s first General in Chief, Winfield Scott, he was born before the Constitution was. When Lincoln is running for president, there are people alive who could remember the time before the US Constitution. So qualifications? And there might be people saying: well, is he qualified? Well you should have been around for the Articles of Confederation, whoa. So, yeah, I mean we change through time, what we think the qualifications are, but I think it still ends up being driven by what we individually or in a political party, want the leader to do as opposed to what the leader has on the resume.
CH: And that brings us around to: what do you want a leader to do? What are you looking for in a leader?
JP: I think a leader has to get results, in the end. I mean that’s why they’re in the position that they’re in. But you have to know what results you’re going for. And the best way to get there.
MG: What I look for in a leader, I think, is the recognition that you are also a follower. You’re leading a diverse group of people who may not agree with you on everything. So how do you find the best way to get to where you all generally want to go? The ability to listen without being easily turned, the old: you know, the last person who talked to you is the one who has the influence. Well, if the last person who talked to you is the one who made the most sense or had the best idea, that’s great. But a leader should have a fairly clear idea of who to listen to, when to listen. I’m going to say: honesty with a proper streak of dishonesty. I don’t want someone who’s going to look me in the eye and lie to me. But – I’ll use Lincoln as an example of this – it’s a scene in the movie that has the virtue of being mostly accurate, when he is asked: are there Confederate negotiators in Washington DC? And he says: there are no Confederate negotiators in Washington DC, nor do I expect there to be. No, he had them out on a boat! He was a smart lawyer, he answered the question he was asked.
JP: And so I think some of the really critical elements are that, that empathy piece. Empathy is just understanding what somebody is going through, actually, you know, knowing it. Sort of standing in their shoes for a moment. You may do all of that, get to the end, and say: I understand you, I empathize with you – you’re completely wrong! But, I understand what you’re saying, I understand why you feel that way, even though I disagree with you. And I think that’s a critical skill for leaders to have, especially, you know, when you’re in a position like the president and realistically you’re so far from the common people. You know, how do you actually do what’s best for the nation? It’s only by understanding where they are, what’s happening with everyday people.
NB: Having a strong sense of self, I think, is probably the most important one from my perspective. So, when we don’t know who we are and we don’t love ourselves and all of the good and bad that comes along with it, then we can so easily be swayed by outside forces, and that’s when we can start to be wishy washy about decisions, that’s when we can be influenced by people who are bad actors, and so when we have that strong sense of self and love for ourselves, we have this internal compass – I mean I guess it’s how people call it – but it’s like this internal knowing that I’m doing the best I can. And my heart is in the right place and however it turns out, is how it’s going to be. You know, and to be satisfied, to be okay with it, however it turns out and to not have it influence who I am.
JC: It sounds like you’re describing, sort of, being centered.
NB: Absolutely, being centered is a great way to put it. To me the depth of centeredness is loving yourself. So like, how can I be okay to be in here, in this body, alone with myself, and feel really good about that?
CH: I was having this conversation with somebody last night. I tend to think that Lincoln had a very strong sense of who he was. I think he really knew who he was and what he was about and I think it enabled him to act very decisively in moments when it mattered and when he needed to. I don’t know, would you agree with that Joan, or do you think – would you wanna think about that more?
JC: My impression is that Lincoln had a very strong sense of his purpose and of his own values. So I don’t know if it means like: you know, I’m Abraham Lincoln and I really prefer a black suit and I like coffee a lot and whatever, right? But that he was very clear on what he thought was the right thing to do, and he was totally unapologetic about evaluating his actions against that metric.
NB: Joan, you hit it right on the head, and when I do my identity work with my coaching clients – or with corporate clients – we start with values and purpose. And that’s what I mean by strong sense of self. You know, it’s not: what’s my personal style?
NB: Or, you know, am I blonde, or I’m a man or a woman. That is not what it’s about. It is about: who am I? What gives meaning and fulfillment to my life? And what’s the contribution I’m here to make to the world?
JC: The Cottage gave Lincoln time to craft his answer to that question. Many people admire Lincoln for the clarity of his vision and for his moral leadership amidst a national crisis. We hope he can be inspiring for anybody who is currently doing something they never thought they’d have to figure out, or could never have imagined they’d have to be qualified for.
CH: As Americans make choices next week about who they’d like to lead the country, we encourage you to think about: what qualifications are you looking for in a leader? And what do you need to get through this moment of uncertainty?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit us at lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for giving us a chance to reflect not only on Lincoln’s capacity for leadership but also our own.
CH: If you’ve enjoyed the episode yourself, please leave us a review or subscribe in your podcast app. You can also write to us with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!