The Servant Leaders Disappearing Act



Would you be willing to jettison your lifelong dream for a greater cause? If achievement were within sight, would you let it go for “the bigger picture”?

That was Abraham Lincoln’s dilemma in 1855.

Just four votes separated Lincoln from a coveted seat in the United States Senate. The votes were within his grasp because in 1855, the 100-member state legislature, not the populace, elected senators. Lincoln had forty-seven votes wrapped up, just four shy of joining Stephen A. Douglas as a senator from Illinois.

Lincoln’s victory was in no way guaranteed. A number of men vied for the office, but only four had a realistic shot of going to Congress:

  •     James Shields: the pro-slavery incumbent democratic senator.
  •     Joel Matteson: the pro-slavery democratic governor of Illinois.
  •     Lyman Trumbull: an anti-slavery northern democrat.
  •     Abraham Lincoln: Whig party member and leading abolitionist voice.

The outcome of this race was critical. Senator Douglas had championed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had dealt a serious blow to the cause of abolition. Should a pro-slavery democrat be elected, it would further cripple the cause of freedom for the nation’s 3,950,000 slaves.

Lincoln knew this was a critical hour for America. As biographer William Lee Miller notes, “He would take up no other matters — not in the fall of 1854, and not for the next six years. He concentrated only on slavery.”

The Legislature gathered to vote on the afternoon of February 8, 1855. Fifty-one votes were needed to secure the senate seat. On the first ballot, Lincoln garnered 45 votes. As Doris Goodwin notes, “In the ballots that followed, as daylight gave way to gaslights in the great hall, Lincoln reached a high of 47 votes, only four shy of victory.”

Lincoln had the four votes – and the Senate seat – if Lyman Trumbull’s five supporters in the assembly would switch allegiance and throw their votes his way. The Trumbull faithful refused to budge “denying Lincoln the necessary majority. Finally, after nine ballots, Lincoln concluded that unless his supporters shifted to Trumbull, the Douglas Democrats (who had switched their allegiance to Matteson) would choose the next senator.”

It was at that point that Lincoln made his famous decision. Joseph Gillespie came to Lincoln and asked what to do, and Lincoln ‘said unhesitatingly, ‘You ought to drop me and go for Trumbull. That is the only way you can defeat Matteson.
— William Miller

The scene on the assembly floor was dramatic. Trumball’s euphoria was matched by grief in the Lincoln camp. Some cried, some raged, and others sat inconsolable.

It’s All About The Cause

What drove Lincoln to release his votes and erase his name from the Senate hopefuls? It was the greater cause of the abolitionist movement.

In public, Lincoln expressed no hard feelings . . . . He deliberately showed up at Trumbull’s victory party with a smile on his face and a warm handshake for the victor. Consoled that the [pro-slavery forces] were “worse whipped” than he, Lincoln insisted that Mattson’s defeat “gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain. . . . On the whole, it is perhaps as well for our general cause that Trumbull is elected."

Historians have routinely praised Lincoln’s selfless act. It is servant leadership on display.

Lincoln pulled off the ultimate disappearing act — ego vanishing for the sake of a greater cause. His message, written in actions louder than words, was this: Abolition trumps ambition." That was true no matter how honorable his ambition.

What can leaders learn from Lincoln’s disappearing act?

 1. Selflessness is about advancing the greater cause.

For Lincoln, the “greater cause” was the abolition of slavery. What is your greater cause? What ambition/s might you need to release to advance it?

2. Selflessness wins friends.

Interestingly, both Trumbull and Norman Judd, the leader of the resistant five members of the Trumbull camp, would never forget Lincoln’s selflessness. Judd would nominate Lincoln for president in 1860.

3. Selflessness strengthens the magnanimity muscle.

While Mary Todd Lincoln would never forgive Trumbull or his wife (she never spoke to Julia Trumbull again), Lincoln’s selflessness increased the magnanimity for which he is famous.

4. Selflessness is resting in God’s bigger picture.

Lincoln said, “On the whole, it is perhaps as well….”

Those who trust a bigger hand in the bigger picture are able to “disappear” knowing they are loved, cared for, and ultimately protected by God who is in control of it all (Acts 17:28; Romans 8:28).

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
— Romans 8:28 ESV

Servant leadership does not mean one casts aside all vestiges of ambition, but it does mean personal ambition takes a back seat to the greater cause. Servant leaders are willing to “disappear” if it means the bigger picture will become a more present reality.

What's the "greater cause" at stake in your leadership today?


  • "for the nation’s 3,950,000 slaves." Slavery count from the 1860 US Census.
  • "William Lee Miller notes..." Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, by William Lee Miller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. Page 250.
  • “In the ballots that followed …” from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005, pages 171-172.
  • "The Trumbull faithful..." from Team Of Rivals, 172.
  • “It was at that point that Lincoln made his famous decision…” from Lincoln’s Virtues, page 311.
  • “In public, Lincoln expressed no hard feelings …” from Team of Rivals, page 172.
  • William Lee Miller, in Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, provides an excellent account of 1855 Illinois Senator “race” including this incident. See pages 298-316, especially 311-312.
  • We know Lincoln as the great Abolitionist, as the President who gave us the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was the senate that was his first love. At one point, Lincoln wrote that he would rather be senator than President. In fact, he pursed the presidency in 1860 because he saw it as a means of promoting his senatorial prospects in 1864. See Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. USA: Southern Illinois University Press. 1952, 2008. Page 200.