The Key to Great Leadership : What the Arab World Can Learn From Abraham Lincoln

While I have written recently about the United States of America’s next President and how his ‘New World Disorder’ is likely to impact the Middle East, I wanted to take a look much further back into America’s line up of political leaders, to explore how one of their lessons in leadership can still be relevant for the Arab world today.

Abraham Lincoln, who many believe to be one of the greatest Presidents in American history, is revered for his powerful leadership style that in spite of difficult times and civil war brought the nation together before his assassination. Lincoln’s success wasn’t just due to being a great statesman and politician but rather for his leadership traits that have stood the test of time.

Let us consider this passage from American historian and author, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book ‘Team of Rivals’ which covers many of Lincoln's extraordinary leadership styles and habits: "His personal qualities enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates, to share credit with ease, and to learn from mistakes.”

It is clear to see that it was Lincoln's openness to listen to and act on the many ideas beyond his own that helped contribute to a much broader view of political, religious, economic and social rights. Further to this, Lincoln actively sought and appointed people to his cabinet who did not always see eye to eye with him, who were unafraid to argue with him and who felt free and empowered to be able to question his authority. Coupled with his innate ability to not only listen well to absorb what people were feeling and thinking, he could always see both sides of the issue. With a cabinet not afraid to not just raise counteractive points but to vociferously argue them with the President gave Lincoln insights and viewpoints to make successful decisions again and again.

Doris Kearns Goodwin affirms this; “Lincoln’s strategy of creating a team composed of his most able rivals, people who are unafraid to take issue with him and are confident of their own leadership abilities.”

What I believe set Lincoln apart from the rest was not to merely just place his rivals in power, it was to go beyond that and choose the best and most capable cabinet members in the country, for the good of the country alone.

These similar principles of pluralism are deeply anchored in the Quran, illustrated through the following surahs:

“Among His proofs are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors. In these, there are signs for the knowledgeable.” (Surat Al-Room Verse No:22).

“We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but He wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you. Compete with each other in righteousness. All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences. (Surat Al-Maeda Verse No: 48).

Historically, throughout Islamic civilization, there has been a similar vein of thought to that of Lincoln’s in terms of government, where local communities and individuals therein have been placed at their centers. Harmony has been achieved through political and cultural tolerance, brought about by the bringing together of differing viewpoints and directions of thought, to foster a cultural and political tolerance for the benefit of all citizens.

However, if we explore how the modern Arab world is currently run and governed, the longstanding history of all voices and opinions being given a fair and uniform place at the governing table has seemingly become a distant memory. What was once a pluralistic society system has become autocratic with those at the top unilaterally making decisions in very much a ‘if you are not with me, then you are against me’ mindset. What was once welcomed as a challenge, argument or the presentation of the other side of the story, has now become ‘treason’ or dissent and in some instances, immediately punishable, occasionally severely.

Why then has the Arab world moved away from its glorious history even before Islam, and many would argue, a much fairer and better way of governing? There are obviously many reasons. Colonialism has undoubtedly played a major role, followed by nationalism and authoritarian rule. However, I would conject that the most influential factor in this ‘recession’ is a resurgent tribal agenda. The more powerful or influential a tribe, the greater the likelihood of them flexing their political muscle and squeezing out any perceived ‘naysayers’. Tribalism works against strengthening civil society and promoting effective citizenship, as there is often favoritism between and among tribes while others have been excluded from the system of institution building, based on patronage and personal relations.

It is clear therefore that there is an opportunity to embrace the past to build a brighter, more prosperous future in the Arab world – if Arab leaders can ensure that their governments create a place at their tables for all purveyors of truth, regardless of their social or political standing.