From Lincoln to Zelensky, leadership is nothing without the ability to communicate
By Ed Amory, CEO
For forty one hours and thirty minutes I’ve been lost in the world of the American civil war, and now I have finished and feel bereft. I’ve been listening to Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a story that ends with his assassination, and an epitaph from Edwin Stanton, his war minister: “now he belongs to the ages.”
I’ve seldom been so compelled by a book, and I’m not alone – Obama used it as the template for his approach to the Presidency. For many readers, the most influential lesson is the way in which Lincoln persuaded his three main rivals for the Presidency to join his cabinet, and then kept them there, serving their country, through four tumultuous years of war. But digesting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliantly told narrative, I came away with another reflection. Lincoln was a political genius and an extraordinary moral titan, but neither of these would have meant anything without his exceptional talent as a communicator.
Leadership requires a compelling narrator
He spent much of his early adult life as a circuit lawyer in Illinois, travelling round the townships, arguing cases and then staying up late in taverns and stores with fellow advocates, judges, plaintiffs and witnesses, and always telling stories. His ability as a storyteller was famed long before his political acumen was recognised. Then, when he became president, his unique talent was to reframe and restate the national narrative at a time when the United States could quite easily have fallen apart. There are numerous examples of this, but the most famous is his Gettysburg Address, only 272 words and yet as powerful a statement of the purpose of democracy as has ever been spoken.
Lincoln shared this ability to frame his country’s story, to reveal to its citizens an essential truth about themselves and their nation that they had understood but not been able to articulate, with other leading figures of the democratic age. Anyone who wants to understand India should listen to Nehru’s famous address on the eve of independence in 1947:
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
Our own national narrative in the United Kingdom is also the product at least in part of one of the great communicators of any age. We are still defined, for better or worse, by Churchill’s words in 1940:
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say “This was their finest hour”.
Without this framing, we might not have beaten Hitler, but equally we might not have had Brexit. Words in this case cast a long shadow.
Slava Ukraini! The master of modern-day political communication
The best contemporary example of this is President Zelensky. Yes, the man who once pretended to play the piano with an unmentionable part of his anatomy has proved himself a brilliant political strategist, an inspired war leader, a man who has helped his nation defy history. But he’s done so because of his unparalleled gifts as a communicator, shifting deftly from carefully crafted speeches to overseas parliaments echoing their own national stories to short-form social media clips encapsulating his nation’s struggle. He’s used every tool available to redefine a country which many outsiders began the war thinking of as pretty much indivisible with Russia.
Each of these leaders reminds us why, whether we are talking about countries, or businesses, or sport teams, or charities, or any other purposeful collection of human beings, it’s not enough to have the right team members, a brilliant strategy, a powerful moral purpose. All of these mean nothing without the ability to communicate. The medium may change, but the lesson from my forty one hours of Lincoln is clear: if you don’t want to become an actor in someone else’s story, then you have to learn to tell your own.