Lesson 9: President Lincoln; What Can Strauss-Kahn Learn From Him?
In his interview with BigThink, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria quotes Lincoln on the relationship between character—moral character—and power. There are many celebrated quotes about character, and Nohria references another one of them, too: that “character is what one exhibits in a crisis.” Lincoln makes the key cauldron of moral character not crisis, but power. By this measure, it is leaders, from Wall Street to Washington, who stand to show us best what character means.
But there are many celebrated quotes on the subject of character. Why are Lincoln’s words so memorable? They are as relevant to leadership and character today as anything said by any current politician—or aspiring politician. And as relevant for former and fallen politicians, too, especially this last week. Character is not on the back burner in 2011—not at business schools, not on Wall Street, and not in Washington. The best intentions still exist. In the Obama Administration, character is front and center. It is rarely put into words, however.
Why We Love Lincoln’s Language
Dean Nohria points out that:
Lincoln was once asked, what is a measure of a person’s character? And he says, you know, “My experience is that most people think that the true measure of a person’s character is how they respond to adversity. “I have found,” Lincoln said, “that the real test of a person’s character is to give them power. And I have been surprised how often I have been disappointed by people’s character when they have been given power.”
Lincoln also said this:
"Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Perhaps politicians are no longer able to speak like this because we no longer trust them. Or perhaps politicians so rarely speak like this because the subject of moral character is neither butter nor guns; we presume we all have a moral compass, and that we use it—or we don’t. But Lincoln’s line pares rhetoric to say something extremely simple—and true. The tree metaphor works because trees and shadows are simple, and because they are parts of nature. We all understand a tree. It is far harder to parse the meaning of character and reputation.
Character Is Something We Know When We See It
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s line about pornography (“I know it when I see it”) applies as well to moral character; if you require a definition, you’ve conceded your ignorance. Lincoln’s metaphor and Stewart’s joke resonate not only because they are short but also because they are clear even if the ideas underlying them are not. (And, in Stewart’s case, because they are funny.) Great lines retain resonance less because of who said them than by virtue of their ambition.
The ability to speak clearly, succinctly, and powerfully is easier than you think
The ability to communicate effectively can make or break a person's assessment of your intelligence, competence, and authenticity.
Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.
- Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
- As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
- If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
- Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
- By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
Journalism got a big wake up call in 2016. Can we be optimistic about the future of media?
- "[T]o have a democracy that thrives and actually that manages to stay alive at all, you need regular citizens being able to get good, solid information," says Craig Newmark.
- The only constructive way to deal with fake news? Support trustworthy media. In 2018, Newmark was announced as a major donor of two new media organizations, The City, which will report on New York City-area stories which may have otherwise gone unreported, and The Markup, which will report on technology.
- Greater transparency of fact-checking within media organizations could help confront and correct fake news. Organizations already exist to make media more trustworthy — are we using them? There's The Trust Project, International Fact-Checkers Network, and Tech & Check.
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