From the raki ritual in Turkey to the peculiar institution of nemawashi in Japan, we have returned often to the theme that leaders sometimes need to “go slow to go fast.” At a friend’s recommendation, I read 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart’s brilliant book on the lead-up to the US Civil War. It contains one of the most amazing examples I’ve ever come across of a leader (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) going slow to go fast.
Goodheart spends a full chapter describing Lincoln’s extraordinary, months-long preparation to craft his speech for a special session of Congress beginning on July 4, 1861. Lincoln used the speech, which was delivered in writing, to lay out his justification for the war. Goodheart writes that Lincoln’s choice of July 4 was no accident: It “signaled that in Lincoln’s mind, the business before the nation’s representatives in 1861 was somehow related to the business of their predecessors in 1776.” Goodheart continues:
“Almost from the moment of the April announcement (of the special session), Lincoln threw himself tirelessly into drafting his message. This in itself was remarkable, even astonishing. Most chief executives, faced with the war’s multitudinous and urgent demands, would probably have let military undertakings trump literary ones. … [Yet, Lincoln held a] deep belief that the conflict in America was one of critical significance to the rest of the world, and that in his July Fourth message he needed to speak not only to Congress, not only to the American people, but perhaps, in a sense, to all of humanity. Perhaps posterity, too…. By mid-June, Lincoln was “engaged almost constantly in writing his message,” [an aide] reported. On the 19th, with two weeks left, the president took the extraordinary step of announcing publicly that he would receive no visitors until after submitting it to Congress. … many Americans shook their heads in disbelief at how much time the president was spending on his message.”
The central objective of Lincoln’s speech was to describe with absolute clarity why, in the president’s view, the war against the South was just. He framed the conflict as a struggle to preserve the idea of democracy on Earth. The Union, he argued, was fighting to preserve the intent of the nation’s founding fathers. In Lincoln’s words: “This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”
Having summarized in detail Lincoln’s arguments, Goodheart concludes:
“When people like Emerson had criticized Lincoln for spending so long toiling over the Independence Day message, they did not understand that the president, in doing so, had in a very real sense been fighting the war. Through his lonely Emersonian struggle, all those torturous hours alone with his thoughts and his half-filled pages, he had been arming himself for the terrible conflict ahead. Again and again over the next four years, those who knew Lincoln would express their amazement at his lack of self-doubt, his tenacity in staying the course—so different from the early weeks of his presidency. But once he had written his address to Congress, Lincoln never again needed to ask himself whether he should be fighting or what he was fighting for. With these large questions settled, the smaller ones of how to fight often answered themselves.”
In short, Lincoln went slow to go fast. In his own mind, it was critical to frame why he was going to war, knowing that the how would follow on. And that is why I highlight this history tale in the context of these blog posts. Companies with a clear Founder’s MentalitySM understand the importance of answering the “why” question first. Most often, they have declared war on their industry on behalf of an underserved customer. They love their products and their company’s mission. The best leaders will take the time to answer the why question, understanding that this is their most important role: For once why is clear, the other questions become easier to answer.
Such acts of true leadership take time and they take passion; they are rarely the popular path. For many of us, it is far easier to engage in the activities of leadership, to immerse ourselves in answering a thousand questions, than in the act of leadership, to answer the one question: “Why?”