Leading with Backbone and Heart

I saw the movie “Lincoln” recently. Now, I am neither an historian nor a movie critic, so I can’t speak to its historical accuracy or how it measures by Academy standards. As a leadership coach, I can say the character of Lincoln is a stunning example of a leader with backbone and heart.

The phrase “backbone and heart” came to me from a book entitled Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart. Though the book is written for coaches, its core themes transfer. The author, Mary Beth O’Neill, challenges coaches to realize that we are likely more comfortable with one than the other, and makes a case that we need both to be effective. Otherwise, we cannot help executives do the same:

“Executives have to bring backbone by standing up for and articulating their positions in the face of others challenging them. They bring heart when they have compassion for those they lead and seek to understand their challenges, concerns and ideas.”

I found myself thinking of both as I watched Daniel Day-Lewis bring Lincoln to life on screen.

“The individual activity of one man with backbone will do more than a thousand men with a mere wishbone.”

— William J.H. Boetcker

It’s safe to say without a “spoiler alert” that Lincoln has his mind set on abolishing slavery. The Confederate surrender is on the horizon, but he knows that if he ends the war without first ending slavery, the issue will never pass the Southern states. The war has gone on forever with many lives lost. The Democrats are staunchly against the Amendment, and even members of his own Republican party think he should delay the vote.

What struck me most powerfully about Lincoln’s resolve came via a scene when he’s talking with his wife’s servant, Elizabeth Keckley. They are talking about what will happen if or when slavery ends.

I was blown away by Lincoln’s response: “I don’t know.”

He didn’t know what would happen, or how things might unfold. He just knew it was what he had to do. He risked lives and laws and certainly being liked for the sake of this belief.

Leaders today are faced with uncertainty everywhere. We all are. Do we wait for it to be over, or take action in the face of it? I was struck by the strength of Lincoln’s internal convictions and by his ability to keep moving so powerfully in spite of ambiguity.

Backbone, check.

“The eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Lincoln evoked the characteristic of heart in two scenes that both took place in what I’ll guess was called the Telegraph Room.

The first scene is a crowded roomful of Congressmen. They’re waiting on battle news, and the room is beyond tense. Lincoln chooses to tell a story. He’s calm, mild, humorous. He takes his time, holding the room and bringing them through what seemed a collective deep breath with his manner. It’s pretty funny as this clearly annoys some of his Cabinet! It was remarkable to watch him stay so centered in the midst of real turmoil.

The second scene in the Telegraph Room was just Lincoln with two young men, whose job it is to run the machines. It’s the middle of the night, and the young men are clearly very aware of being in Lincoln’s presence in this quiet, intimate setting. Lincoln engages them in conversation, even asking their opinions, before making a crucial decision and finishing the telegraph.

As he leaves, he briefly places a hand on each young man’s shoulder. It was the merest of gestures. Here is the President of the United States, bearing the weight of a consequential decision, and yet he retains his presence and humanness. He connects. I remember thinking: “what a gentle man.”

Heart, check.

Final Thoughts: “Both/And” Instead of “Either/Or”

Without a doubt, demonstrating both backbone and heart is a tall order. These things seem at odds with one another, don’t they? I found a second description O’Neill uses to be useful in thinking through this:

“Backbone means knowing and clearly stating your position, whether it is popular or not. Heart is staying engaged in the relationship and reaching out even when that relationship is mired in conflict.”

To explore your capacity to exhibit both backbone and heart, consider these questions:

  1. Which of the two is my comfort zone? What makes me more comfortable here?
  2. Are there situations where I demonstrate the other? What conditions allow me to bring this part of me forward?
  3. What would showing both backbone and heart look like for me?
  4. Where are three situations or relationships where I could practice bringing both?

If nothing comes to mind for #4, then consider these words from Lincoln for now: “I will prepare and some day my chance will come.”

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