Whether you’re casting a vision, announcing a new initiative, reporting results or addressing a crisis, you’re selling an idea.
Selling is part of the art of leadership. And storytelling is part of selling. Humor can help.
Americans honor the birthday of Abraham Lincoln in February, and doing so provides a timely reminder of Lincoln’s gift of storytelling that he sprinkled with humor to puncture pomposity, defuse tense situations and engage people before diving into serious subjects.
Here are nine of his best.
On dismissing complaints
A Senator called on Lincoln demanding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s dismissal.
“That reminds me of a story,” replied Lincoln.
“Yes, yes! It is all story, story,” bellowed the Senator. “You are the father of every military blunder that has been made during the war. You are on the road to hell, sir, with this government, by your obstinacy; and you are not a mile off this minute.”
“Senator,” replied Lincoln, “that is just about the distance from here to the Capitol, is it not?”
Hearing that, the Senator stormed out.
On providing perspective
A group of prominent men called on Lincoln to express their concerns about how Lincoln was conducting the war.
The President heard their complaints then replied, “Gentlemen, suppose all the property you were worth was in gold, and you put it in the hand of Blondin [the great French tightrope walker] to carry the gold across the Niagara River on a rope. Would you shake the cable, or keep shouting out to him, ‘Blondin, stand up a little straighter! Blondin, stoop a little more! Go a little faster! Lean a little more to the north! Lean a little more to the south!’? No! You would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was over.
“The Government is carrying an immense weight. Untold treasures are in its hands. They are doing the very best they can.
“Don’t badger them. Keep silence, and we’ll get you across.”
On providing a pass to a visitor through enemy lines
When a visitor to the White House asked Lincoln for a pass to Richmond (the Confederate capital), Lincoln said, “I would be very happy to oblige you if my passes were respected. But the fact is, sir, I have, within the last two years, given passes to two hundred and fifty thousand men to go to Richmond, and not one of them has got there yet.”
On pompous people
Lincoln hated pomposity and once condemned the writing of a Greek scholar for his tediousness at a dinner party.
A diplomat took Lincoln to task, saying, “The author of that history, Mr. President, is one of the profoundest scholars of the age. Indeed, it may be doubted whether any man of our generation has plunged more deeply in the sacred fount of learning.”
“Yes,” replied Lincoln, “or come up drier.”
Once when referring to an unnamed Chicago businessman, Lincoln said, “That man can compress the most words in the fewest ideas of any man I ever met.”
On sending a heated letter to a colleague
Secretary Edwin Stanton confided in Lincoln that in response to an officer disobeying his order he would “sit down and give that man a piece of my mind.”
“Do so,” said Lincoln, “while you have it on your mind. Make it sharp. Cut him up.”
Stanton needed no further encouragement and, having completed the letter, read it to Lincoln. “That’s a good one,” replied the President.
“Whom can I send it by?” asked Stanton.
“Why don’t send it at all,” said Lincoln. “Tear it up. You have freed your mind on the subject, and that is all that is necessary. Tear it up. You never want to send such letters. I never do.”
On requesting favors
Lincoln once received a letter requesting a “sentiment” and his autograph.
“Dear Madam,” he replied, “when you ask a stranger for that which is of interest only to yourself, always enclose a stamp.”
On the prospect of missing the train to Gettysburg
“I feel about this as the convict felt when he was going to the gallows. As he passed along the road in custody of the sheriff, the people, eager to see the execution, kept crowding and pushing past him.
“At last [the convict] called out: ‘Boys, you needn’t be in such a hurry to get ahead. There won’t be any fun till I get there.’”
On the British hosting Ethan Allen following the Revolutionary War [though it may not have happened, it’s characteristic of Allen who courted controversy, and it’s classic Lincoln at his storytelling best]
“Ethan Allen had returned to England after the war,” Lincoln begins, “and is invited to a social engagement.
“Wanting to embarrass Allen, the British place a picture of George Washington in an outhouse where Allen will be sure to see it. Allen joins the social engagement and, after a time, asks for directions to the outhouse. He excuses himself from the party, uses the outhouse, returns to the party and says nothing about the picture.
“Eventually his British hosts ask, ‘Did you not see the picture of George Washington?’ Allen replies that he did. ‘And what did you make of its placement?’ they ask eagerly.
“Allen replies that he thinks it’s a very appropriate place for an Englishman to hang the picture because nothing will make an Englishman sh*t so quick as the sight of General Washington.”
What’s your leadership style?
Two Quaker women were discussing the relative merits of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War.
“I believe the Confederacy will win the war,” said the first woman, “because Jefferson Davis is a praying man.”
“But Abraham Lincoln is a praying man too,” the second Quaker lady protested. “Yes,” replied the first, “but the Lord will think Abraham is joking.”
Happy birthday, Uncle Abe.
To dive even deeper into the topic of accountability, I invite you to purchase a copy of my bestselling book, “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.”
Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.