Stan Soderstrom | Jul 20, 2020

Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors.


Google the term “greatest U.S. presidents." You’ll find online articles that rank America’s 47 presidents from best to worst. Now click on several links. In almost every case, you’ll see the same two names at the top: George Washington, the nation’s first president, who usually comes in at No. 2, and the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who comes in first.

What did they have in common? Both led at a time when the future was extremely uncertain. Washington headed a young nation that had no guarantee of survival. Lincoln lived with uncertainty about restoring the American union. Both had passionate critics, and both had times of doubt and even despair.

Both leaders were also lifelong learners despite lacking formal education. And each led largely through relationships with others. In each case, I think those qualities persuaded both men toward unity as a solution to the tumult of their times.  

Washington helped a young country whose motto was e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) to realize its aspirations — because of, rather than despite, a population that had come from many parts of the world to form many communities in 13 very different colonies.

Lincoln, known for many of his oratorical performances and historic speeches, delivered one to a country on the brink of civil war — two years before he was elected its president. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said in an 1858 address, rephrasing a verse from the Bible to express his own vision for the nation.

In today’s world, it’s easy to find leaders whose style is to divide. And people easily become polarized or splintered. Too often, our first inclination is to think in terms of winning and losing. And we all hate to lose.

But we have big challenges to overcome — together. Whether it’s the global pandemic, the resulting economic turbulence, racial injustice or whatever crisis may be just over the horizon, solutions come only when people pull together.

That’s where leadership comes in. When you analyze the histories of Washington and Lincoln, you see constant effort toward uniting people. They had their critics, and they surely weren’t perfect. But the power of unity overcame the appeal of division — not by magic or mere hope, but because of the framework they created. And both are viewed among history’s winners because of that.

In turbulent times, it can be easy to get caught up in the back-and-forth of public debate. After all, leaders are individuals too — and we all have our own perspectives and experiences. But our responsibility as leaders is to bring different perspectives and viewpoints together for a common purpose. And since the essence of leadership is to create other leaders, we should also look for and mentor other people who have that commitment and talent.  

After all, it was good enough for Washington and Lincoln — so I’m confident it’s the best long-term approach for us too.


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