The inspiration for this post comes from a book about Abraham Lincoln. Many years and probably more than 100 books later, I have long since forgotten which book gave me this thought. So, with apologies to the writer who penned words to this effect, let me share a lesson we can learn from the sixteenth president of the United States.
Much of Lincoln’s strength as a leader came from his ability to be righteous without becoming self-righteous.
Just to be clear, here are the definitions of the two words as listed at Dictionary.com:
1. characterized by uprightness or morality: a righteous observance of the law.
2. morally right or justifiable: righteous indignation.
3. acting in an upright, moral way; virtuous: a righteous and godly person.
1. confident of one’s own righteousness, esp. when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.
Lincoln seemed to have the ability to move and act in righteous (morally right ways) without becoming self-righteous (smugly moralistic and intolerant). He showed his capacity for maintaining this balance in an address he gave during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.
As he addressed the crowd in Peoria on October 16, 1854 he said:
I hate [the spread of slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.
Notice his ability to call out the immoral spread of slavery without simultaneously criticizing the people who wanted to spread it. He managed to condemn the behavior without condemning the people involved.
In the day-to-day miscommunications and conflicts that arise as we work with other people, we can seldom claim a position as morally clear as Lincoln’s stand against slavery. Yet, many of us stake out morally “right” positions and then condemn people who might simply misunderstand us or disagree with us.
As you confront conflict situations, you will likely have to confront truly bad behaviors from time to time. Normally, there are shades of gray as you work to resolve workplace and family conflicts. Even when the situation has clear right and wrong perspectives, remember Lincoln’s example and learn to act in a righteous (morally right) way without becoming self-righteous (smugly moralistic and intolerant).