How Leaders Serve Leaders

A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.
— Thomas Carlyle

Even giants seem little at times – and Frederick Douglass was a giant. The African-American spokesman, abolitionist, and civil rights activist had a giant intellect, giant courage, and a giant’s heart for justice. But in the turbulent days of the Civil War this giant’s voice was often ignored. In the eyes of some he was still a “little man.” Not to Abraham Lincoln!

How Lincoln Served Douglass

Ever vigilant regarding the cause of African Americans, Douglass was particularly concerned for how black soldiers were treated — by both the North and the South. Fighting for the Union Army they received less pay than their white counterparts. If captured by the Confederates they faced execution, a fate not shared by white soldiers.

Friends and friendly politicians encouraged Douglass to take his concerns to the president. Douglass was apprehensive. In his autobiography he describes his hesitancy in approaching Lincoln.

The distance then between the black man and the white American citizen was immeasurable. I was an ex-slave, identified with the despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic. It was altogether an unwelcome duty, and one from which I would gladly have been excused.

What kind of reception would Douglass encounter? Would he be refused entry? Would he be told, “Go home and mind your own business”? Would he be chastised and told to leave such matters to the wise minds of Washington? Douglass approached his meeting with caution but Lincoln immediately put him at ease:

I shall never forget my first interview with this great man…. There was no vain pomp or ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a little armchair with his feet extended on the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents and several busy secretaries… The president appeared to be much overworked and tired. Long lines of care where already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned.

As I approached and was introduced to him he arose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man – one whom I could love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt. Proceeding to tell him who I was and what I was doing, he promptly, but kindly, stopped me, saying: ‘I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I’m glad to see you.’
— Frederick Douglass

Lincoln’s kindness to Douglass, whom the president considered “one of the most meritorious men in America,” helped establish a friendship that would foster peace, help the North win the war, abolish slavery, and set a course of freedom for all Americans. The encounter between these two leaders also provides insights in how leaders can serve other leaders.

7 Ways Leaders Serve Other Leaders

Leaders encounter opportunities to meet and engage other leaders. These meetings can be times to compare, compete, and conquer . . . or they can be moments to acknowledge, befriend, celebrate, collaborate, and encourage. Lincoln chose the latter. Lincoln chose to serve. The president’s actions toward Douglass and other African American leaders demonstrate seven ways leaders serve other leaders:

1. Take time to get to know them.

“I know who you are, Mr. Douglas; Mr. Seward has told me all about you.”

Lincoln had done his homework. His familiarity with Douglass spoke volumes. It is powerful when a leader tells another leader, “Yes, I am familiar with your work. I read up on you.” Translated: You are important to me. I care.

2. Welcome them genuinely.

“I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln,” Douglass said. He added,  “Perhaps you may like to know how the President of the United States received a black man at the White House, I will tell you how he received me–just as you have seen one gentleman receive another…. I tell you I felt big there.”

You’ve been the “new guy” haven’t you? It is an awkward and uncomfortable feeling. How refreshing to be genuinely welcomed and made to feel at home.

3. Treat them as equals.

“In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a state where there were black laws.”

Prejudice rears its ugly head in matters of race, but it can appear in attitudes we take toward those unlike us in achievement, position, status, experience, or organizational size. General Colin Powell has said, “There is no such thing as an unimportant person in an organization.” Leaders demonstrate their belief in that dictum when they treat other leaders as equals. Lincoln did that.

4. Treat them as friends.

The interaction between Lincoln and Douglass was no photo op. In October 1864, Isabella Baumfree (aka “Sojourner Truth”), visited the president. The elderly black woman was an abolitionist and woman’s rights activist. In her hard and storied life she “had been sold three times on the auction block, escaped to freedom and afterward brought out other fugitives on the Underground Railroad.” Sojourner Truth declared that she,

 “Never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality,” and she was proud that the president wrote in her autograph book “with the same hand that signed the death-warrant of slavery.” “I felt that I was in the presence of a friend….”

5. Listen with respect.

“Mr. Lincoln listened with patience and silence to all I had to say. He was serious and even troubled by what I said and by what he himself had evidently before thought upon the same points. He, by his silent listening not less by his earnest reply to my words, impressed me with the solid gravity of his character.”

The evidence that Lincoln listened attentively was seen in the way he took action. He promised that in the end black soldiers would have the same pay as white soldiers.

6. Seek their input.

In 1864, Lincoln was eying reelection, envisioning reconstruction, and grappling with how to win the support of War Democrats. These members of the democratic party had supported his efforts in the Civil War, but now wanted him to soften his stance on the abolition of slavery. Lincoln did not want to lose this political cohort, so he crafted a letter with “modified peace terms” to hold their allegiance. Prior to sending the letter, the president ran it past Frederick Douglass. Douglass “strongly objected to the letter.” In the end, Lincoln set it aside. The letter was never sent.

Leaders serve other leaders when they trust them enough to seek their input on important matters.

7. Champion their cause.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states or areas “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

Douglass was initially critical of the president. Lincoln moved too slowly for his liking and the abolitionist doubted the president’s sincerity. In the end, however, Douglass offered high praise for the Great Emancipator. Lincoln was a friend who championed his cause.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
— Proverbs 17:17

Leaders Serving Leaders

The encounter between Lincoln and Douglass provides an opportunity for a double look.

The inward look: Leaders take time for self-reflection. When you look back over the seven ways leaders serve leaders, which ones are your strong points? Which ones need work? Every leader should be asking, “What can I do to serve other leaders better?”

The outward look: Leaders take the time to recognize and thank other leaders. We all know leaders who have served us well. They have taken time to get to know us and to welcome us. They have treated us as equals and as friends. They have listened carefully, sought our input, and championed our cause. When I reflect on leaders who serve leaders, three people immediately come to my mind: Dr. Ray Underwood, founder and long-time Lead Pastor at Palm Beach Community Church, now serving with Family Church, Bob Schuemann, long-time leader (now retired) of The Gathering Palm Beach County, and World Leaders Group President, Dr. James Davis. These men are leaders who serve leaders. My leadership is better because of them. I am grateful.

What leader has marked your life by his or her act of service? Feel free to leave your comments below.


I originally wrote this post for the World Leader's Group. Here are the sources for the quotes and interactions I referenced in the post :

  • “The distance then between the black man” from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass. Dover Publications. 2003. Pages 250-251.
  • “I felt big there” Liberator, January 29, 1864. Quoted in Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. Page 553.
  • “In all my interviews” from Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman. New York: Clarion Books. 1987. Pages 103-104.
  • “Sojourner Truth” from Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995. Page 541.
  • “Mr. Lincoln listened with patience and silence” from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Page 251.
  • “Strongly objected to the letter” from Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1995. Pages 526-527.
  • “that all persons held as slaves” from the Emancipation Proclamation.