We get better when we listen to others. But how do we know who to listen to?
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln had few fans. He was pressed between the country’s dissatisfaction at the Civil War’s slow progress and the divide on the slavery issue.
One side believed slavery’s immorality demanded immediate reckoning. The other feared emancipation would further divide the nation. Both voices were loud in Lincoln’s Cabinet, where his “team of rivals” often sought their own promotion and fame over the country’s best. Nearly everybody was frustrated at Lincoln’s seeming inability to pick a side.
What appeared to be passivity was actually strategic. Lincoln trusted in his own authority enough to not capitulate to the criticisms of either extreme. While most of us would want the tension to go away, he let tension build. He allowed the values of each side emerge while he ruminated on the possibility of a third option.
Through his nomination and presidency, Lincoln maintained remarkable resolve at his primary value, one he believed bestowed upon him in the Constitution: preserve the Union.
In seasons of uncertainty, to whom should leaders listen?
Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. With a presidential proclamation, he intended to free all slaves in Confederate states. This was more aggressive and decisive than anyone had expected.
Lincoln then gathered his Cabinet and told them my mind is made up, but I’m telling you first. The debate was over and the decision was his. After all, he already knew their opinions.
Wait. I thought leaders were supposed to listen?
Lincoln did listen. He knew who to listen to.
The former rail splitter had the strength to withstand the vitriol of response. From the most powerful group of White men in the country, he accepted but a few minor revisions.
Listening to Outsiders
And then, attentive to the ramifications of his decision for Black Americans, he invited a contingent of freed slaves to the White House.
He had informed his Cabinet. He listened to the marginalized. Lincoln invited some of America’s most underrepresented citizens into his inner circle and listened to them.
Before they had a vote, he gave them a voice.
In this instance, he was willing to be wrong. In fact, he adapted his plan based on their input.
Listening in Action
Lincoln could have let uncertainty influence his resolve. He also could have shut himself off to outside voices. Instead, he moved forward with clarity of voice and an ear to everyone his decision would impact. In particular, he sought out the voices of people few others had heard.
You probably have a pretty good grasp on what people like you think. Go find people with different roles, backgrounds, responsibilities, and perspectives. Listening to diverse voices helps you make better decisions. You’ll become more empathetic, informed, and connected. As you do, you’ll become more likely to entrust others with leadership.
Don’t just hope diverse voices come across your path. Make a plan to invite them in, listen to them, and take them seriously.
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