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What Today's Leaders Can Learn from Lincoln and Mandela

Lessons from two great leaders of the past can help bridge our political divide

What personal qualities make a leader successful at reconciliation?

One way to answer this question is to identify the personal qualities and actions of two great reconciling leaders of the past: Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. Based on the political achievements of these two leaders, bringing about successful reconciliation requires 1) understanding the experience of one’s adversaries and acting on this understanding, 2) showing self control and forgiveness, 3) demonstrating empathy and cognitive complexity, 4) believing in the potential for others to change, and 5) learning and applying lessons from great thinkers of the past. More elaborated answers to this question can be found in a pioneering article by Daniel Lieberfeld of Duquesne University.

1) To bring about successful reconciliation, a leader must be able to understand the experience of one’s adversaries and be willing to act on this understanding.

Abraham Lincoln rejected retribution against the Confederacy. After the Civil War, Lincoln granted immunity to Confederate soldiers from charges of treason and allowed these soldiers to keep their horses and their rifles. To help heal South Africa after nearly a half century of apartheid, Nelson Mandela supported and championed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose goals were to gather truth and to promote reconciliation – not retribution. Over a period of six years, the TRC collected testimony from victims and perpetrators, granting amnesty to those who perpetrated violent political crimes during apartheid in exchange for truthful testimony about their crimes.

More symbolically, shortly after General Lee’s surrender, Lincoln requested the White House band to play “Dixie” to honor the soldiers of the former confederacy. Mandela’s first presidential address began with a poem written by an Afrikaner poet, and he supported the Springboks rugby team at the 1995 World Cup, wearing the jersey of a team that just a few years earlier was one of the great sources of segregationist pride among pro-apartheid nationalists.

2) Reconciling leaders show self control and forgiveness.

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Successful leaders become aware of their harmful tendencies and work to control these tendencies. Lincoln had a fierce temper as a young man, but he learned to control his anger and to build a lifelong adherence to the principles of avoiding acts of malice and never holding a grudge. Mandela experienced deep bitterness from his twenty-seven years of imprisonment and the attendant cruelties inflicted on him during that time, including the refusal by prison authorities to allow Mandela to attend the funerals of his son and his mother. After his release from prison, Mandela sought common ground with the leaders who once tormented him and his followers.

Both men exercised self control, setting aside their personal difficulties and tendencies toward anger and bitterness to work with their adversaries for the common good.

Our next president should take a lesson from Lincoln and Mandela and not succumb to the temptations to hurt and disparage adversaries, either with the powers of the presidency or with the influence of Twitter.

3) Reconciling leaders demonstrate empathy and cognitive complexity.

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Reconciling leaders believe that complex events are multi-causal and that simple ideologies and simple explanations are necessarily incorrect. Lincoln famously said that few things are wholly evil or wholly good, a sentiment difficult to imagine in today’s heated political exchanges, where vilification is the norm. When negotiating, Mandela always looked for overlap between his views and the views of his adversaries, focusing on detailed and pragmatic solutions.

Those over thirty may remember President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” – a concept that guided this country away from negotiation and away from reconciling differences. More recently, one presidential candidate advocated the jailing – and even the execution – of his political opponent, which showed the opposite of empathy and cognitive complexity.

Labeling one’s adversaries as “evil” sets them aside and condemns them as the impenetrable other, unable to be understood – outside the world of evil. In particular, thinking in simple terms of good and evil discourages reconciliation between former adversaries. A leader cannot reconcile with evil beings. A leader can only reconcile with human beings, however misguided their past actions.

4) Leaders promoting reconciliation believe in the potential for others to change.

Confidence in the potential for others to change arises, in part, from confidence in one’s ability to persuade. Both Lincoln and Mandela were trained in the law, which taught them to argue effectively and persuasively, and to do so without personal animosity. The belief that others can be educated and persuaded also arises from the knowledge of meaningful changes in one’s self.

5) Reconciling leaders are open to learning from intellectual leaders of the past and applying what they learned in practical ways.

The openness to read the great thinkers of the past and to apply their principles to contemporary politics encourages reconciliation. Both Lincoln and Mandela read political philosophy, Shakespeare, and the Greek classics, giving them a set of time-tested principles and examples to draw from in negotiating with their adversaries. An intellectual education promotes reconciliation and – paradoxically – encourages more appropriate pragmatism than an education primarily in practical matters, such as business.

Discouraging Reconciliation

Put a different way, the qualities of a leader that discourage reconciliation are a desire for retribution, interpreting differences of opinion as personal insults, the tendency to simplify issues and to vilify one’s adversaries, pessimism about people’s ability to change, an unwillingness to learn from experts and intellectuals, and the inability to recognize one’s flaws.

Encouraging Reconciliation

To encourage reconciliation, leaders must understand the perspectives of their adversaries, sublimate hurtful urges, forgive others and themselves, believe in cognitive complexity, be intellectually curious, and be optimistic about the potential for change in other people.

It is this last quality that may ultimately provide the most sustenance in the years to come.

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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