Conspicuous Consumption

Career Lessons From Spielberg's 'Lincoln'


Career Lessons From Spielberg's 'Lincoln'

Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Getty Images

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which premieres on Nov. 9, is less a typical sweeping biopic than a moving look at the closing months of the Civil War, when the president pushed Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery. Written by Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and starring two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), the movie strives for historical accuracy (although if you’re allergic to swelling music and close-ups of soldiers’ tears, stay away). And it portrays Abraham Lincoln not just as a legendary figure and commander-in-chief but also as a manager—a man who had to keep together an unruly Cabinet and negotiate thorny political alliances. So what can today’s leaders learn from the 16th president, or at least the Day-Lewisification of the guy?
 
Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Sure, the movie is about the Thirteenth Amendment (148-year-old spoiler alert: It passes). But wasn’t it the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves? Yes and no. The proclamation, issued under Lincoln’s war powers, immediately freed all slaves in the Confederate States of America. But it was a wartime measure and didn’t establish a legal basis for abolishing slavery across the nation. Lincoln knew that once the Confederate states were readmitted into the Union after the war, it would be impossible to get the amendment ratified. So he pushed to get it through Congress before the fighting ended—even though it meant letting the Civil War drag on by delaying a meeting with a Confederate peace delegation.
 
Trust your lieutenants, even if they don’t always agree with you …
Much of Lincoln focuses on members of the Cabinet, particularly Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), a former political rival, as well as a motley trio of political operatives who go about selecting “soft” members of the Democratic opposition and cajoling them to break with party ranks and vote for the measure. Although he’s absent during these scenes, Lincoln essentially sets the agenda, clarifies its moral underpinnings, and lets his men do their work.
 
… but don’t get isolated.
The very first scene of Spielberg’s film shows Lincoln meeting with a small group of soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address to him. And though the president goes on to let his men deal with the rough-and-tumble business of getting a bill passed, he’s not afraid to court votes himself from time to time—even meeting with Democrats he knows he has little chance of convincing.
 
Use anger, but sparingly.
The Abraham Lincoln of Lincoln is soft-spoken and folksy. But we see glimpses of his inner fire, most notably when he loses his temper and delivers a passionate rant about the nobility of the Union cause in an effort to keep the members of his divided Cabinet from giving up on the amendment.
 
Take your job home with you.
Spielberg, ever obsessed with fathers and sons, plays up Lincoln’s connection with his youngest, Tad. We see them together in some of the film’s cheesier moments, where Tad shows a genuine interest in the country’s troubled legacy. In the movie, the son’s conscience helps reinforce the father’s morality. Of course, most CEOs don’t deal with matters of national and historical importance, but it never hurts to serve a higher purpose.

Ebiri is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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