‘This too shall pass’ said Lincoln, and What it Means for Leadership Today

business transformation, leading change, leadership skills

For leaders in today’s unpredictable world this quote of Abraham Lincoln is very relevant. Let’s take a closer look at what it means.

When the British still had an Empire (ruled by Queen Victoria) and a weak China was forced down on its knees (Opium wars), a rising Republican politician climbed the stage to hold a speech in the U.S. His name was Abraham Lincoln (not yet elected president, at this point. In fact, he thought that his career had been – in his own words – “a failure, a flat failure.”).  Addressing a large gathering of entrepreneurs and farmers in Wisconsin (1859), here is what Lincoln said:

 “Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, “Lay it not too much to heart.” Let them adopt the maxim, “Better luck next time;” and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves. And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations of them are but temporary (…); and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.”

“And this too, shall pass away.” – Abraham Lincoln

Fast forward to 3 or 4 of generations later, where the larger international patterns seem reversed. The state of the world today – the painful Brexit process, the arrival of president Trump, the rise of China (Who is watching China: The New World Order on BBC?) suggests there is indeed a natural cycle at work in our lives, our work environment, our planet: an endless flow of evolution and transformation. Spring turns into summer, turns into autumn, into winter, and into spring again. What comes up, eventually goes down and prepares to rise again, like ocean waves do.

“Change is the only constant” – Yuval Noah Harari

No particular constellation is ever static. Any pattern is temporary and in essence evolving. The ancient Chinese already understood this. They called it Yin and Yang (No wonder Lincoln quoted a monarch from the East).

What does this mean for leadership today?

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak” – Alec Ross

Some thoughts, coming from personal experience in working with leaders and their organizations during complex change:

True inspiration, satisfaction, and success comes from:

  • Learning how to go along/navigate the course of things in an intelligent way, rather than trying to control what cannot be controlled.
  • Adopting an open mindset, being eager to explore and learn, being conscious of what we don’t know, rather than holding on to what we know.
  • Fostering flexibility. Flexibility always beats rigidity. In structures, in processes, in behaviors … always.  
  • Paying continuous attention to alignment. Integrate this attention in your daily work, in your teams, in your relationships with business partners.

“This too shall pass away” are good words to remember when you/your teams are hit by an unexpected blow. They are also good words to remember when you/your teams have just struck gold.

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Photo: Shutterstock.com


Aad Boot is a global business advisor, change & transformation leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services.

Hanneke Siebelink is research partner and writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books and the Expert Series. Find out more about our team, our services, and keynotes.

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