From Lincoln’s earliest ages the awkwardness of his exterior belied the substance of his interior. When a union solider saw Abraham Lincoln for the first time, he remarked that the 16th president was “not only the ugliest man I ever saw, but the most uncouth and gawky in his manners and appearance.” He was gaunt, lanky, and unkempt, so much so that a young girl, in a letter to the president, suggested he grow a beard as a means to soften the unseemly aspects of his features.
His intellect was evident as a schoolboy, but how was Lincoln able to overcome his ungainliness and put others at ease?
Lincoln had charisma. He cultivated specific skills to develop a magic level of leadership that aroused special devotion, that frequently turned opponents into enthusiastic supporters.
Lincoln Understood the Power of Words
Lincoln read whenever and wherever he could. He took books with him into the fields during light and read at night until the last flicker of candlelight. As Fred Kaplan writes in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, “For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today.
He was a master of speech and rhetoric.
What You Can Do
Spend time each day with a book of great speeches. Work to memorize whole swaths of text. Internalize the cadence of great sentences. Cherish and celebrate the power of words.
Here are two places to start:
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History contains more than two hundred outstanding moments of oratory. It is selected, arranged, and introduced by William Safire, who honed his skills as a presidential speechwriter. He is considered by many to be America’s most influential political columnist and most elegant explicator of our language.
The American Heritage Book of Great American Speeches for Young People includes over 100 speeches by founding fathers, patriots, Native American and African American leaders, abolitionists, women’s suffrage and labor activists, writers, athletes, and others from all walks of life, featuring inspiring and unforgettable speeches by such notable speakers as: Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Tecumseh, and so many more. These are the voices that shaped our history. They are powerful, moving, and, above all else, uniquely American.
Lincoln Told Great Stories
Lincoln was a master of stories and jokes. He honed his skills while riding circuit as a Western lawyer, collecting anecdotes and lewd jokes that he would later use to disarm opponents, set others at ease, offset his appearance, or offer recognizable parables to support his position.
What You Can Do
Michael Port, author of Steal the Show, believes that there are four stories that we can all tell, we just have to shape them. They are:
1. People — How did you make your first true friends? Who was the teacher you admired most? What were the quirks of your college roommate? What can you say about your first girlfriend?
2. Places — Maybe there is a story in your childhood summer camp? Did you have a local hideout or a favorite family vacation spot? What can you say about the first apartment that you lived in?
3. Things — Think about the story of your first baseball glove, the first couch that you purchased, or the family heirloom that has been passed down for generations.
4. Times and Events — Did you had a car accident once? Or did something dramatic happen on the first day of middle school? Maybe you contracted lyme’s disease and thought you were going to die.
Once you have four things worth telling, you need to shape and sculpt them into stories. The three-act structure is at the heart of good story telling. Remember your 9th-grade English class? Exposition, rising action, and resolution?
Set the scene with exposition but the bulk of your story should be spent with the rising action, raising the conflict and building tension. Continuously increase the stakes and heighten the uncertainty to make your audience hungry to know what happened next.
Lincoln Connected Through Compassion
Loss and suffering pervaded his life. His mother and sister died in his childhood. His first love, Ann Rutledge, died at the age of 22. His second son, Edward, died at the age of four from tuberculosis. While in office, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died from typhoid fever.
The frailties of human life touched Lincoln deeply and profoundly. But it also enabled his to have wide sympathies and connect sincerely with others. He spent much of his spare time visiting wounded soldiers in Union Army hospitals. His letters to the family members of fallen soldiers are among the most moving in history.
He wrote to 22-year-old Fanny McCullough only ten months after the death of his son Willie:
In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.
What You Can Do
Charisma cannot exist without compassion. It stems from a sense of shared suffering, but builds allegiances because compassionate people have a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer. “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Scientific evidence shows that we can teach our brains to feel more compassion, both for others and ourselves. There are two simple things you can do to cultivate greater compassion.
1. Start each morning by repeating a mantra of compassion.
2. Truly enjoy the company of others. Put aside your own self-centeredness and see the humanity in others.
As Leo Baubata, of Zen Habits, writes, “One of my favorite exercises comes from a great article from Ode Magazine — it’s a five-step exercise to try when you meet friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person. With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:
- Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”
- Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
- Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
- Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
- Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”