“We are stepped out upon the world stage now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands,” proclaims Daniel Day Lewis in his celebrated portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. “Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment!” Day Lewis exclaims. “Now, now, now!”
While Day Lewis and Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner have received across the board (and well-deserved) praise for capturing the essence of Lincoln, these particular lines have struck a number of critics as false. Why is that?
As Yale professor David Bromwich observes in The New York Review of Books, “the man is aglow and his voice is alive with the tremendous business of making history.” However, this was a not a sentiment that Lincoln ever embraced. Bromwich continues:
Any leader who adopts the posture of seeing himself on the stage of history is a glory to himself and a menace to all whom he must lead. Napoleon (whose favorite word was “destiny”) loved this posture, and Lincoln (as he revealed in his Lyceum Address of 1838) hated Napoleon for loving it.
In fact, Lincoln’s humility was his greatest asset, argues Gautam Mukunda in his new book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. Mukunda, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, says Lincoln “was humble in a way that transcends our normal notion of humility.” In a recent interview with Big Think, Mukunda told us Lincoln represents the type of leader who knows “he is doing something noble and worthwhile. But the noble quest is far more important than they are.”
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