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Without Truth, Integrity, Leadership Is Hollow, Lincoln Emphasized

'OAK TREE' HONESTY. LINCOLN. 'Our government rests on public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government practically as such.'

By Donald T. Phillips. Donald T. Phillips, the author of "Lincoln On Leadership," published by Warner Books, is a consultant in the fields of leadership and management and, as a member of the National Speaker's Association, speaks frequently to groups and corporations around the US. / February 14, 1992



AT one point during the Civil War, President Lincoln was pushed by his cabinet to confront the realization that many people who were thought to be Union patriots were actually spies providing key information to the Confederacy. Not only was the situation a security concern, but Lincoln was particularly distressed at the obvious lack of loyalty and honesty from so many people who were believed to be Union supporters. After presenting the overwhelming evidence, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton turned to t he president for direction. Lincoln, who had been silent and visibly disturbed, expressed his feelings with a story about the dilemma of an old farmer who had a very large shade tree towering over his house:

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"It was a majestic-looking tree, and apparently perfect in every part - tall, straight, and of immense size - the grand old sentinel of his forest home. One morning, while at work in his garden, he saw a squirrel [run up the tree into a hole] and thought the tree might be hollow. He proceeded to examine it carefully and, much to his surprise, he found that the stately [tree] that he had [valued] for its beauty and grandeur to be the pride and protection of his little farm was hollow from top to bottom. O nly a rim of sound wood remained, barely sufficient to support its weight. What was he to do? If he cut it down, it would [do great damage] with its great length and spreading branches. If he let it remain, his family was in constant danger. In a storm it might fall, or the wind might blow it down, and his house and children be crushed by it. What should he do? As he turned away, he said sadly: "I wish I had never seen that squirrel."

Many leaders in contemporary society can empathize with the predicament in which Lincoln found himself that day in 1863. Today, it would be like finding out that a top-level manager, admired by employees and known for his "oak tree" honesty, had been dipping into the till. What should the CEO do? If the manager were exposed, "cut down," and fired, it would do great damage to morale. But, if he were allowed to remain and the problem overlooked, the entire organization could come crashing down at any momen t - because everyone would know that the company's integrity was a sham.

High ethics and morality in any organization must be sincere. That's one reason why "Honest Abe" Lincoln was so admired in his lifetime. Through an individual's words, deeds, and actions, integrity can be judged to be genuine. And integrity is tied closely to the values espoused by an effective leader. Leaders, in general, must set and respond to fundamental goals and values that move their followers. In addition to being much-needed moral standards, values tend also to be motives by which subordinates a ct and react. The possession and preaching of such wide-ranging, appealing goals and values result in the acquisition of broad support from subordinates. People become involved participants in a shared group effort. Put more simply - values motivate. It is the sole responsibility of the leader to instill these values by constant preaching and persuasion. It is the leader's role to lift followers out of their everyday selves up to a higher level of awareness, motivation, and commitment.

Abraham Lincoln constantly shared, stressed, and reemphasized the two most fundamental values that, over the years, have mobilized Americans: the pursuit of liberty and equality. His integrity was, in short, the nation's integrity. "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence," he once said. All men were created equal in Lincoln's eyes, and the nation was formed by the founding fathers so that any tyrants who might "reappear i n this fair land and commence their vocation ... should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack."

For Lincoln, the Civil War was not just a conflict in arms but, rather, a "people's contest.On the side of the Union," he said, it was "a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men ... to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."

Trust, honesty, and integrity are exceedingly important qualities because they so strongly affect followers. Most individuals need to trust others - especially their boss. Followers must perceive their leader to be a consistently fair person if they're to engage in the kind of innovative risk-taking that brings a company rewards.

Lincoln always did the right thing - or at least he attempted to do so. He simply did not deal with people he knew to be dishonest. "Stand with anybody that stands right," he preached. "Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong." Like the tree in Lincoln's story, without integrity, what you say is hollow. And if an organization has no ethics or values, it can't support its own weight, and will eventually come crashing down.