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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Washington and Lincoln Share their Wisdom

by Shel Horowitz

The Family Business Center is known for "bagging" top national business speakers. But never before has the Center managed to snag a speaker from beyond the grave. And never before has a U.S. President, past or present, appeared before the group.

Yet at the December gathering, members heard from not one but two deceased U.S. Presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Staying in character throughout—at one point, in response to a question about the impact of television, Washington replied, "He's using a word I don't know"—the two men were portrayed by William Arthur Sommerfield, artistic director of the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia (Washington), whose credits include appearances on NBC's "Eyewitness to History," "Good Morning America," and "The Today Show," as well as Mount Vernon and the White House.

Lincoln was brought to life by Jim Getty—like the historical Lincoln an Illinois native, who now resides in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He has performed at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, among other impressive locales.

Alternating back and forth, the two presidents answered a series of questions posed by FBC Director Ira Bryck, plus a few from the assembled multitude.

On dealing with difficulty: Washington said he learned from the Benedict Arnold fiasco that "I do not put people in important positions on the basis of emotions only." One part of the story not often told: Washington claimed that Arnold had mixed government money with his personal funds—something that still rings a warning bell in today's Enron era.

Lincoln was less popular in his own day than Washington had been, and often faced a hostile press. He also fought with General McClellan, who refused to carry out Lincoln's strategy, prolonging the war, according to Lincoln, in order to maintain the hope of not eliminating slavery in the South.

Both men were known for their impeccable honesty. When asked about it, "Honest Abe" replied, "Honesty tops everything in leadership. I worked with a cabinet of seven people, and I had to be honest with them. I don't just mean you have to be always truthful, but you have to be consistent. You can't change your policy every week… And humor—without it, you're lost. I used humor back when I was a lawyer, not just to tell the joke but to get the point across to that jury.

And the man of whom the "I cannot tell a lie—I chopped down the cherry tree" story is told? “ My father was a farmer and I am a farmer, my father taught me the value of anything that that grew from God’s green and blessed earth. ‘Tis a myth, I never cut down a cherry tree!' When he was 11, his father died and his half-brother Lawrence took over the estate. Lawrence "handed me a book called the Rules of Civility, told me to copy them to improve my handwriting. I copied those rules again and again, and they became part of me. The basic rule of civility is: have a great deal of respect for all other human beings. That tenet is supported by honesty, which remains my basic philosophy."

Lincoln also talked of his cabinet when discussing leading difficult people. "I was coming to the White House under the condition of possible rebellion. This great government could have cut itself right in two. Each of the seven men as I chose them looked down upon me, they all thought they were more qualified to be the president than this hick from Illinois. I chose both Democrats and Republicans to fill those seats. If we were to go to war, this wasn't going to be a Republican war, it was going to be a national war. I never wanted a group of yes-men. I wanted new ideas. I wanted them to throw things out on the table that I would never have thought of. And then we could discuss it. And when they went out from there, they knew the policy. A reporter asked, 'you have four Democrats and three Republicans, and the Republicans have all run against you, aren't you worried about a coup? I said, 'if you think they don't like me, you should see how they hate each other.'"

Washington also faced people who were anything but yes-men, citing "several instances where I surrounded myself with people that one might think were not appropriate for the task. My best general was Nathaniel Green, of Rhode Island; a Quaker! I also surrounded myself with young men, my aides de camp. Out of that group, the most important was Alexander Hamilton. He was very difficult to manage, he overworked all the time. He was extremely loyal, but he had a short fuse. I told him one day to come to my office. He said he had to deliver a paper first. When he came back, I said, 'you have kept me waiting 15 minutes.'" In a fury, Hamilton stormed off and threatened to resign. "Later I called upon him to be Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson to be Secretary of State. These two did not get along well, but I needed them both. Without Hamilton's ability to see the future, I doubt this country would have any solid financial structure and Jefferson’s knowledge was essential in foreign affairs."

Both men faced rebellions. Washington, to his regret, oversaw the execution of two of the mutineers, but spared the lives of the other five; Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the war. Fortunately, the typical family business owner is unlikely to face the need for such drastic consequences.

How does a leader motivate and communicate and entertain?

Washington: "To lead means to win the respect of those serving with you. This respect is oft times won by sharing the experiences in the field, doing the things that they do. Hence the cold, and the misery of war was shared by the leaders as well as the rank-and-file. This was necessary to retain the loyalty of those who served. A constancy of character was needed. If I deviated from that concept of being respectful to those who served, then I could not ask them to do the things they had to do. The most important thing was I learned to listen. I allowed each general to speak their mind, give me ideas, but then I did what I thought should be best, never violating the goals and objectives which I had laid out at the start of the revolution. Perhaps I do not have Mr. Lincoln's way with humor? Lincoln: "When I debated Stephen Douglas for the Senate, all our debates were out of doors. We were going at it in front of 2000 people. He told them I had had a liquor license when I was a storekeeper. Have you ever heard 2000 people inhale at once? So I told them that I was always on the rear side of the counter, but Mr. Douglas was on the front side.

But sometimes, a leader simply has to act decisively, as Washington did here: " We had lost battles in Brooklyn Heights, Manhattan, Fort Lee and Fort Washington. We were driven all the way across New Jersey all summer long, fighting at every crossroad, every bridge. Finally we found our backs against the Delaware River. People thought the war was over. We needed something to awaken them to our greatest cause. I went back across that river and attacked the Hessian outpost. It's not true that they were celebrating Christmas and were sodden with drink; they had doubled their guards and the rumor was abroad that we were coming. But they could not believe that this ragtag army would strike across the Delaware. One man, Colonel Daniel Glover of Massachusetts, said to me 'your plan is ridiculous, you have no boats.' I said, 'Col. Glover, find me the boats!' Three days later, on Christmas Day, we had the boats, stolen for us. By the by, if you want anyone to steal a boat for you, get a Massachusetts man. I knew that if we did not strike within New Jersey, that we would lose popular support and the war would be over.'

Some points specifically relevant to family business issues:

  • Lincoln, on active management: "When you go to the front lines, the general never knows when the old man is going to show up, so he keeps in a higher state of readiness. But you're reassuring the troops that you're on the same wavelength or success."
  • Washington, on delegation and the importance of a shared mission: "Each officer under me received very clear orders, but the orders also said that officers must use their own initiative when the situation changed rapidly. We disseminated information in the early days of the war by trying to get everyone on the same page, a page written by Tom Paine… a short tract called “Crisis No.1. ” I asked that the pamphlet be distributed to men in the Continental Army, and they read it. It's important to make your basic message clear. Why were we fighting? It was important that even the common soldier understood our mission.
  • Washington, on the power of admitting weaknesses while quelling dissention in the ranks: "I couldn't read the letter. I reached for my eyeglasses. Not even my intimates knew I wore them. 'You will excuse me, for not only have I grown gray in the service of my country, but nearly blind.' I looked into their faces and where there had been anger and confusion previously, now in each eye a tear glistened and I knew at that moment the dissention had been eliminated."
  • Lincoln, on the role of business: "I'd go back as a shopkeeper in Springfield, Illinois, and serve some of my clients who were small business people: John Deere, McCormick…financial, banking, insurance—the Hartford already had agents in Chicago and Cincinnati. We started the transcontinental railroad during my presidency. Business did that.'

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