In his farewell address in Springfield, Illinois, before assuming the presidency, Abraham Lincoln boldly claimed the task before him was “greater than that which rested on Washington.”

Lincoln long held that his generation could not be compared with the achievements of the country’s founders, but the threat of a war that would tear the country apart led Lincoln to make this audacious comparison with the most esteemed Founding Father.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln assured the Southern states that he had no intent or even lawful right “to interfere in the institution of slavery in the states where it exists” and even pledged to uphold the deeply contested fugitive slave law. But the deep divisions in the country proved stronger than these assurances.

Today, our country is also sharply divided with seemingly no path toward reconciliation. Duke University professor Timur Kuran characterized the division in the country today as comprised of two opposing coalitions: those whose primary identity comes from gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation and another coalition of groups suspicious of economic globalization, technological innovation, cultural change and cross-border labor mobility.

Both coalitions see themselves as victims and seek redress of their grievances. While the identity coalition is generally aligned with the left and the opposing coalition with the right, the old left-right disputes left room for compromise over how to divide the economic pie. But today’s conflict pits those seeking cultural disruption against those seeking continuity, clashing visions of the country similar to the slavery dispute, which makes compromise harder to achieve.

Is it possible to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable conflicts? In his book “Leadership,” James MacGregor Burns distinguished between transformational and transactional leadership. Most leadership takes a transactional form – support from a constituency in return for delivering policies that benefit that constituency. Transformational leadership goes beyond the exchange of valued things to inspire followers to transform or raise their conduct, their motivation and their morality to pursue loftier goals.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address demonstrated the power of transformative leadership. After four long years of battle, the North had victory in its sights and expected Lincoln’s inaugural to celebrate this hard-fought triumph.

Lincoln sought instead to transform the relationship between the parties engaged in the conflict and challenged his Northern constituents to look differently at both the war and the future of the country.

Lincoln did not speak as the victorious leader of the Northern Army, because he had already been transformed from the commander in chief to the head of the soon-to-be united country.

He focused on shared beliefs – both the North and the South read the same Bible, prayed to the same God and summoned His aid against the other. By invoking both a wrathful and merciful God, Lincoln undermined long-held views of preachers and public alike that God was on their side, condemning the North as well as the South.

While he acknowledged that God had His own unknowable purposes, Lincoln confidently proclaimed that God was offended by slavery and willed to remove it and gave the country this terrible war. But the country could appease this angry God by holding malice toward none and charity for all, by joining together to bind up the nation’s wounds, by caring for wounded soldiers and for widows and orphans and by working together to achieve a just and lasting peace.

Lincoln sought to transform the country from warring factions to a united people – a model in transformational leadership. We do not share the commonplaces of 19th century America but we can profit from Lincoln’s lesson to find common values and conjoint action to transform the country.

We will have to take substantial steps not only to address legitimate grievances but also to bring these two communities together in common service to the country, overcoming their intolerance toward the other. It’s the type of leadership the country needs today and may be a challenge even greater than that which rested on Lincoln.


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