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Adversity Made Abraham Lincoln an Effective Leader

The movie Lincoln provides a glimpse into some of the challenges that President Lincoln faced while he was in office. But the level of suffering this leader endured throughout his life is simply astonishing. He was a victim of relentless and tragic sorrow. His mother died when he was 9. His first love died when he was a young man. Later, three of his four children died in childhood. His wife may have been affected by mental illness, and he himself is believed to have suffered from what we would now call clinical depression.

His political path was no easier. This man we view as a unifying hero was largely unpopular in his own times. The media portrayed him as a hapless hick from the backwoods. Eastern society rejected him and his wife because they were from Illinois—then considered the rough western frontier. And when he ran for president, leaders in Southern states made clear that if Lincoln were elected, the country would divide. With 82 percent voter turnout in 1860, he won with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

Rather than shrink from a leadership nightmare in the making, accepted leadership of a country that was already deeply divided below the surface, knowing his election meant division would soon be obvious on the surface as well. Sure enough, after his election Southern states made good on their threats and began seceding from the union before he even took office. Then, roughly a month after he took office, all-out civil war erupted. His popularity grew during his presidency until, four years after he took office and just six days after the Confederate surrender, he was shot and killed in a final tragedy that helped to bring the nation back together in their grief.

What made Lincoln such an effective leader during this great crisis? Here's one theory: Lincoln's intimate acquaintance with sorrow and hardship had prepared him for the kind of self-sacrifice his presidency would require.

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