The Howells Group Blog

Lessons Learned: Lehman Bros or Lincoln?

Powell’s Books always weaves it’s magic for me as the world’s largest independent bookstore… especially when I leave with a book I didn’t come into buy. It’s the ultimate treasure hunt. I’d heard lots of buzz about the book and movie “Too Big to Fail” so I grabbed a copy and cracked it open last week in between required textbooks for my master’s program. (a welcome break, to be sure). A spellbinding and sobering read, Andrew Sorkin chronicles the wind up to the 2008 financial meltdown. Over 500 hours of interviews with 2,000 people involvedreveals an all too “true to life”  tale of greed, self delusion, absent corporate oversight and incestuous insider cronyism. But the most glaring gap so far is a stunning absence of leadership that has any moral compass. I feel sad and angry – especially knowing that this is just one of many stories like it. Honestly, I fought the temptation to give in to cynicism by the time I hit page 100. But, fortunately, that weekend,  we caught the new Stephen Spielberg movie “Lincoln”.

      Here was a leader driven by a moral imperative, in a hostile and divided political environment amidst a brutal war. Tragedy and mental illness plagued his family. His own cabinet was divided. Circumstances could have caught him in compromise. Instead, rather than cave in or lose the long view of what mattered most, Lincoln combined strategic and shrewd acumen with appropriate use of power, while still maintaining his integrity and sense of purpose. Yes, Spielberg only focuses in on a brief portion of Lincoln’s life and presidency, and not all the history is letter perfect. But the movie skillfully unpacks the stormy politics and moral dilemmas he faced in order to ensure that the amendment to end the slave trade in America passed, if only by a slender thread. Though we lost this leader far too soon, his leadership lessons echo into our lifetime and beyond. If only we could take a lesson from Lincoln, as the fiscal cliff is endlessly debated and deals are cut behind closed doors, instead of continuing the legacy of “Too Big to Fail”. Will we choose integrity or base self interest? The long view vs. short term gain? Preserving the best of our United States of America, freedom and a leadership role in the world is too important NOT to fail.

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful. 
— Samuel Johnson

One Comment

  1. QuietMonolith
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    what a great comparison! I would never have thought to make a connection between Lincoln’s amazing leadership and integrity and Wall Street’s lack of both in recent past.

    Obama talked about Lincoln quite a bit in his first campaign, in fact, he cited him as a major influence on his own political career and a personal hero for himself.

    Now that this major motion picture has been released (reaching, perhaps, a wider audience than any of the many books written about Lincoln’s life) I hope that people will have a better sense about who Lincoln was – maybe they will realize some of what you said in your blog post here: that part of what made Lincoln a great leader was the depth of his personal integrity and his sense of responsibility to the nation.

    I think personal integrity and a sense of responsibility are qualities necessary for anyone in a leadership role, not just the president. But as you said, with this “fiscal cliff” dropping away in front of us and unemployment still causing concern as Obama’s new term begins and we approach 2013 – we could all use a reminder of what happens when greed and dishonesty rule our lives as you read in “Too Big to Fail”.

    I hope that at least some of our nation’s politicians will choose to emulate Lincoln and try to balance their personal integrity with the responsibility they have to their constituency.

    I know that I, for one, will look forward to both seeing this movie and reading this book. I appreciate your blog pointing them out and illustrating your own perspective.

    Looking forward to reading more from you!

    -Nathan.

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