Always Respond Never React: A Life & Leadership Lesson from Abraham Lincoln


If you want me to make it easy to understand why then let me do so by storytelling. Can anything be better than that? Let’s begin and go back in time:

It was the year 1860. Abraham Lincoln stunned everyone and became the 16th President of America. Just a few months into his presidency, Lincoln faced the worst crisis his country has ever faced since independence: The American Civil war.

The four-year war (1961 – 65) in which 11 southern states out of 34 seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. The states that remained loyal to the American government were known as the Union.

The confederate army was led by General Lee. The confederate army was pitted against the Union army. During the first two years, many battles were fought between the two armies, and in the majority of cases the confederate army won. But this was soon to change at Gettysburg, where the Union army was close to their first major victory.

The battle of Gettysburg began 1st of July 1963.

Just 4 days into the battle, when the Union army had the upper hand and was close to winning, General Lee began to retreat southward back into Virginia, while storm clouds lashed the country with rain.

When Lee and his army reached the Potomac, they met with a flooded, almost impassable river in front and the Union army behind. They were trapped. There was no way to escape. Here was a god-sent opportunity to capture General Lee and his army and thus end the war. But, General Meade, did something unthinkable. He decided not to chase Lee’s army, the water receded and General lee escaped.

Back then there was no Television or Social Media, so Abraham Lincoln received this information the next day via Telegraph in the White House. Lincoln, was furious as he felt this was the golden opportunity to capture Lee and finish the civil war.

Out of rage, he started pacing up and down in the White house. In that emotional state, he sat down at his desk, opened the drawer, took a page out, and started writing a letter to General Meade. It was a strong-worded letter. You will feel that Lincoln should criticize Meade on this.

This is a part of the letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to General Meade:

Here’s a snippet:

“My dear General,

“I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.

If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much.

Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

Abraham Lincoln.”

 Clearly, this is was a bit harsh and stern rebuke, a bit personal too.

Lincoln folded the letter, put it in the envelope to send to General Meade.

Now, what do you think Meade said after reading this letter? what was Meade’s response?


Why? Because General Meade never read the letter.

 Why? Because General Meade never received the letter.

 Why? Because Lincoln didn’t send the letter.

 Yes, the letter was retrieved after the assassination of Lincoln, when his drawer was cleaned. There was this envelope which read, “Never signed, never delivered,”.

This is a great example of both Reaction and Response at play. When Lincoln wrote that letter in the heat of the moment, that was a reaction, but after writing the letter he paused a little bit allowed his emotions to cool down, and then responded by not sending the letter.

Now, what went through Lincoln’s mind during the paused period. Well, Dale Carnegie captured it beautifully in his book, “Lincoln the unknown”. Carnegie’s speculation about why Lincoln never sent the letter and that Lincoln’s thought process went something like this:

“Maybe I ought not to be so hasty. It is easy enough for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack; but if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week, and if my ears had been pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying, maybe I wouldn’t be so anxious to attack either.

If I had Meade’s timid temperament, perhaps I would have done just what he had done. Anyhow, it is water under the bridge now. If I send this letter, it will relieve my feelings, but it will make Meade try to justify himself. It will make him condemn me. It will arouse hard feelings, impair all his further usefulness as a commander, and perhaps force him to resign from the army.”

Today, there is so much talk about Empathy: putting yourself into somebody’s shoes. This is a classic example of how a Head of the state put himself into the shoes of his army General and walked a bit with a realization of where it pinched.

Now, just imagine for a moment, what would have happened if Lincoln had an Email, Facebook or Twitter account.

What if he would have typed the letter on his phone and in that heat of the moment pressed the “Send,” button.

Historians feel that American history would be different today.

This is the power of Response, that saved a nation from dividing.

Now, look into your life. Just pause, think and reflect back. It has the same power to transform your relationships. If you would go deep, you will realize a lot of bitterness in our relationships is due to the menace of Reaction. Don’t believe me!

Have you ever typed out a strong harsh worded email rebuking a colleague or your junior for a mistake they made or an error they committed? Or in more personal terms, have you ever tweeted something, typed a Facebook status update, or typed an SMS that is full of criticism, negativity and resentment toward someone, something or some issue? And in that frustration and anger pressed the send button.

I know we all have. We’ve done it a lot. 

Just imagine, we are in the age of digital communication, where audiences of millions is just a few seconds away from our fingertips it is much harder to resist sending that “hot email, hateful tweet, resentful SMS.” They are just a send button away.

Taken for granted it is easy to forget how fast and quickly it could be viewed. But just because it is so easy, we should be more careful and prudent. Isn’t it? The same applies to face-to-face conversations.

Next time, whenever you feel you are about to react, just pause and pull back. Commit yourself to re-read the message and evaluate where it fits in the context of Dale Carnegie’s first principle: “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain”. You will realize that maybe there is no need to send the message at all, or there may be an opportunity to re-frame or re-phrase the conversation.

Maybe just call them and say, “What can I do to help avoid such conflicts in the near future?”.

Always remember this, “When you react you lose control, but when you respond you gain control”. 

Happy Responding!

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