The movie “Lincoln” (2012) focuses on a critical period during the Civil War – January 1865 – when President Lincoln makes a high-stakes attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives. It was clear by this time in the war that the Union would prevail. Lincoln thought it imperative that the U.S. Constitution abolish slavery once and for all, so that as southern states were readmitted to the Union, there was no question about the status of African American citizens.
Lincoln wages an all-out effort to gain the necessary votes, resorting to deals, bribery and flattery. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a staunch abolitionist and congressman from Pennsylvania, asks President Lincoln how he can justify using such tactics? Lincoln replies with a story from his days as a young surveyor:
“[A] compass…[will] point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If, in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieving nothing more than to sink in a swamp [then] what’s the use of knowing true north?”
The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, and as far as I can research, there is no evidence that the real Lincoln ever said this. However, Lincoln did work as a surveyor in his younger days, and often answered questions with a story, so Kushner deserves credit for capturing the essence of truth.
A compass can point us to true north, but it’s up to us to figure out how to get there. Great leaders understand the vision remains fixed and permanent, like true north while our values and our purpose act like a compass. The strategies we employ to achieve our vision must, by necessity, be flexible and subject to changing conditions.
Winston Churchill employed a similar technique early in World War II when Nazi Germany was on the verge of conquering France and the British Expeditionary Force was in full retreat from Dunkirk. It was apparent that Hitler’s next objective was invasion and occupation of England. With the U.S. remaining on the sidelines, the United Kingdom was on its own. Churchill famously addressed the House of Commons on June 4, 1940 to lay out his vision, which would stand steadfast and permanent for the entirety of World War II:
“I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone…Even though huge tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.”
With the vision firmly fixed in the hearts of British citizens, Churchill addresses the strategy:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.”
The message was clear. Surrender is not an option and victory will eventually prevail. How that was going to happen exactly was still yet to be determined, but it would require “all do their duty.”
Ron Golding, a pilot for the Royal Air Force in 1940, and who later would become Churchill’s body guard, recalled “after those speeches, we wanted the Germans to come.”
Churchill, Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (p. 551-552)
On Grand Strategy, John Lewis Gaddis.
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