Brevity In Leadership

A man once honored, can later be attacked by a composite of critics. Such seems to be the path that modern day historians have chosen to follow in relationship to President Abraham Lincoln. Although a few historians of many decades past did find fault with President Lincoln, a preponderance of early historians referred to him in kind, if not exemplary, terms. Recently, many historians have exemplified a lesser degree of respect for President Lincoln, to the shock of many who still consider him to be “my favorite president.”

Historians of decades past and days recent have agreed on one concept: Lincoln was a master at word crafting. Two examples, one well known and the other rather obscure, illustrate a cornerstone of President Lincoln's word crafting – brevity. 

 His Gettysburg Address, an assortment of words that most middle school students knew by heart, at least for a day, is widely acclaimed as a pristine presentation. It was irrefutably powerful and strikingly brief. The address was less than 250 words, fifty percent of those words held four letters or less.

 A second example of how President Lincoln utilized brevity is an incident at the Navy Yard Hospital. The president would visit the injured on a regular basis. On one visit, he passed by a seriously wounded Confederate soldier - “little more than a child.” He shared brief words, had a prayer, and left. He returned to his carriage exhausted. Before departing, one of the nurses informed him that the young and dying Confederate soldier had requested a return visit. The president obliged and asked the young man how he could help him. “I am so lonely and friendless, Mr. Lincoln, and I am hoping that you could tell me what my mother would want me to say and do now.” The president expressed appreciation that the young man had invited him back and said, “Yes, my boy. I know exactly what your mother would want you to say and do. Please repeat these words with me.” The young soldier repeated words which came from his sole friend – brief words that the president could barely utter:

            Now I lay me down to sleep,

            I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

            If I should die before I wake,

            I pray the Lord my soul to take.

            And this I ask for Jesus' sake.  

There is not always strength in numbers. There is often power in brevity. Excessive verbiage does not always serve a leader well. Expressing the point with precision and brevity can bless a leader and service his team. Many of my books and articles are edited and re-edited by a precise, if not brutal, editor. Invariably, pages are returned with lines striking out half of the page. My books and articles are certainly the beneficiary of her watchful and professional life. She continues to teach me that it is more difficult to express yourself with a few words than it is to express yourself with many words. I feel that brevity requires a higher preparation price for me than does excessive verbiage. I also fully recognize that my audiences and readers appreciate substance and not mere fluff.

As a young man, I prided myself on the Silver Queen corn in my garden. But my labor was not always easy. The most difficult thing for me to do was to pull out from the precious Georgia soil perfectly healthy corn stalks. But, I had to do this in order for the remaining stalks to produce a bountiful harvest. Leaders, before you present critical thoughts, remind yourselves of the power of brevity. Thin the corn.

Posted on August 30, 2016 .