1: Following their defeat in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army retreated toward the refuge of Virginia.
“At that moment Lee was more vulnerable than ever before,” write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in Lead Yourself First. “Lee’s remaining troops were in enemy country, disoriented by defeat, and without reinforcements or ammunition to fight anything near a sustained battle.”
President Abraham Lincoln immediately understood the opportunity to end the war in a single stroke. He sent orders to General George Meade to attack. Lee’s army was trapped, unable to cross the Potomac for ten days as a furious summer storm raged on.
But Meade hesitated. And Lee escaped.
Upon hearing the news, Abe was disconsolate. “On only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected, and discouraged,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
And yet, five days later, Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay wrote, “The Tycoon [i.e., Lincoln] was in very good humour.” He felt good enough to “compose a lighthearted doggerel that morning about how Lee had ‘skedaddled back’ to Virginia.”
2: So, how did Abe recover his emotional balance so quickly?
“We do not know exactly what Lincoln did, hour by hour, during those five days of recovery,” the authors write. “But we do know that he did two things, both cathartic and both alone.”
First, he retreated to his bedroom and wept. The President’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, found his father “in tears, with head bowed upon his arms resting on the table at which he sat.”
Second, Abe wrote a letter to Meade. He began on a conciliatory note: “I am very—very grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg, and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you.”
But then Lincoln’s tone changed: “I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. . .
“You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.”
In the next paragraph, Abe summarized the epic lost opportunity: “Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely… Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
That Abe was angry and frustrated with Meade was hardly surprising. What happened next, however, was.
He wrote “never sent or signed” on the envelope and filed it away. Why?
3: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s analysis of Lincoln provides insight into his “winning formula.” She writes: “Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in such difficult situations was rooted in an acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.”
Raymond and Michael build upon this idea: “Excess emotion—emotion beyond a leader’s own limits to control—has to go somewhere,” they write. “The leader who thinks he can cram it down indefinitely is only deluding himself; the emotion will either distort his judgment or eventually paralyze him altogether.”
Should a leader break down in front of his colleagues? No. “The solution,” they write, “is to do what successful leaders have done in crises throughout history: make a choice to go somewhere and break down in private.”
When adversity hits, we must find a way to change our perspective. By removing himself from the situation, Abe was able to step outside of the current events and see the larger context.
“By cutting the problem down to size intellectually, the leader does the same thing emotionally,” Raymond and Michael write. Doing so allows us to shift our focus “away from fear and recrimination, and toward the real tasks of positive leadership: action, goals, and the preparation of plans to meet them.”
Abe never “discounted the magnitude of the opportunity lost when Lee escaped. But soon his magnanimity returned to the fore,” the authors note. “Within days, Lincoln recognized that the obstacles in Meade’s way—his troops, too, had just fought an epic battle—were greater than Lincoln had appreciated before July 14.
“On July 21, he sent a letter to another general which he knew would make its way to Meade: ‘I am profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done.’ He closed with his usual generosity: “Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer and a true man.”
By early August, Abe had processed what had happened and had moved forward. “I have rarely seen him more serene and busy,” wrote Hay on August 7. “The Tycoon is in fine whack.”
Reflection: Think back on a time when I received terrible news. How did I handle the situation? What can I learn from Lincoln?
Action: The next time I am angry or frustrated, make time to journal about what has happened.