Throughout the movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis, we are treated (as we should be) to multiple instances of Lincoln entangled in a tense and threatening situation only to hear him start his response with a story. The stories Lincoln tells are usually pithy, homespun, humorous and wise. They each sound at times like an Aesop’s fable all dressed up in grown up clothing. And often-times don’t even seem to be on point with the topic at hand. But work nonetheless.
This story-telling tic, or device, of Lincoln’s worked profoundly well for him. And for our nation.
The stories –and the time it took to tell them–communicated something much more important than an answer to the question posed. Which Lincoln would eventually get to.
First, the story was a distraction which defused an already overly tense situation. But the time Lincoln had finished his story, others present had had time to broaden their perspective and return to the ability to be reasonable rather than just react hastily. And the humorous punchline only helped punctuate this for the president.
Second, it brought everyone in the room together on an unrelated matter. Sure, everyone may be divided by the national conundrum they were debating, but for a few brief moments they were reminded that there was more than united than divided them by laughing together at a commonplace story. And if they could do that, perhaps they could agree on bigger issues. At least, I believe, that was the subconscious message achieved by Lincoln.
Three, Lincoln would re-establish through his story that he was “one of them” –just an ordinary fella not a slick, manipulative, self-serving politician. He could be trusted and was a person of goodwill trying to solve a thorny problem for reasons beyond merely self-interest. Like his familiar stories. He put his audience at ease with him and the process they were engaged with.
Fourth, the stories themselves often had a sage message. Lincoln could brilliantly distill an impossibly complicated topic into a simple everyday matter that all were familiar with–and show a way to a common sense resolution that could be both supported and understood (and explained to others). And do this all with the metaphor of an story. That was perhaps Lincoln’s greatest measure of genius.
Fifth, with the distracting and disarming impact of the story, the audience Lincoln was holding forth with, would be temporarily off guard when he followed the story with his framing of the issue and his specific request. The story would knock them off balance, so to speak, and for a brief window of time, open their minds again (from the entrenched positions they had hunkered into just moments before). And for that brief window, they were again persuadable by reasoned discussion.
Sixth, and finally, Lincoln was genuine. Lincoln was successful with this manner of relating and communicating through story not because it was a shrewd negotiating technique but because it was an extension of the man. It was the way he thought and understood things. And he had a magnanimous temperament (perhaps his greatest presidential trait) and sought to find the right solutions for the right reasons in the most practical terms. He was real. Yes, he sometimes had motives he didn’t disclose fully …but Lincoln was, as they say, the “genuine article.” People, as stated earlier, simply trusted Lincoln even if they didn’t like him or what he stood for.
And that human bond of rust, in the end, was perhaps Lincoln’s greatest leadership secret.