The Power of a Leader's Words


Can people count on you to follow through on your words?

Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation--freeing slaves in the Confederate States--on September 23, 1862. This preliminary document would not take effect until Lincoln issued the final proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Lincoln's order was greeted with elation, with hope, and with much criticism. William Fessenden, who would later become Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, remarked that it "did not and could not affect the status of a single negro." Not all shared the grim view of radical abolitionists like Fessenden. Frederick Douglass, the brilliant thinker, writer, and Civil rights activist was elated:  

We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree....Will it lead the President to reconsider and retract. No. Abraham Lincoln, will take no step backward.

These were powerful words from a man who had doubted and criticized Lincoln. In Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Douglass intuitively grasped Lincoln's character, that he was not a man to go back on his word. Douglass said,

Abraham Lincoln may be slow . . . but Abraham Lincoln is not the man to reconsider, retract and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature. . . . If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word.

Christian leaders are people of their word. God makes this very clear:

1 Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?

Who may live on your holy mountain?

2 The one whose walk is blameless,

who does what is righteous,

who speaks the truth from their heart;

3 whose tongue utters no slander,

who does no wrong to a neighbor,

and casts no slur on others;

4 who despises a vile person

but honors those who fear the Lord;

who keeps an oath even when it hurts,

and does not change their mind;

5 who lends money to the poor without interest;

who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

will never be shaken.

Psalm 15 NIV

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation he knew the implications of the words he penned. And he would stand by them. As he said to Massachusetts congressmen George Boutwell, "My word is out to these people, and I can't take it back."

While our words may never pack the punch of the Emancipation Proclamation, they do carry weight.

  • I'll call you.
  • Let's get together.
  • You can count me in.
  • I'm here for you.
  • This is what we are going to do this year . . .

Are the words we speak mere pleasantries or are they promises? Can our followers say with Fredrick Douglass, "If he has taught us to confide in nothing else, he has taught us to confide in his word?"

Christian leaders keep their word -- even when it hurts.


The quotes attributed to Fessenden, Douglass, and Lincoln can be found in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln , by Doris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. Page 483.