John Maxwell on Leadership

The Lawyer Who Didn’t Lie


A busload of lawyers careened off a mountain road and tumbled over a cliff. The bus was destroyed and there were no survivors. Tragically, the bus was only half full.

Though there are a number of wonderful attorneys, as the joke above indicates, members of the legal profession are often subjected to a negative stereotype. They’re suspected of saying whatever will help them win a case rather than speaking honestly. Apparently, this popular fiction—of the dishonesty of lawyers—has held steady over the years. Himself an attorney, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following notes in 1850 when preparing a speech to aspiring lawyers…

There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest…the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief---resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.

Lincoln appears to have practiced what he preached. Amazingly, he earned his nickname, “Honest Abe,” despite working in two professions commonly accused of ignoring the truth: law and politics.

Even as a young man, Lincoln’s honest character was evident. In his twenties, Lincoln partnered with William Berry to open a grocery store. The business failed, and Berry died shortly thereafter, leaving Lincoln with the entire debt. At the time, debtors frequently skipped town in the middle of the night, moving westward into the American frontier in order to avoid repaying their loans. However, Lincoln accepted his financial responsibility. Although it took him roughly a decade, he diligently paid back every dollar that he owed.

Lincoln’s reputation for honesty followed him into politics. When Stephen Douglas heard he would be running against Lincoln for a seat in the US Senate, he acknowledged Lincoln as a formidable foe. “I shall have my hands full. He is the strong man of his party—full of wit, facts, dates—and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West.  He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.”

Lincoln’s reputation for absolute honesty gave him an edge as a leader. People might disagree with him, but they couldn’t question his integrity. His character was indisputable.

In leadership, there’s an ever-present temptation to bend the truth, to enter moral gray zones, and to allow pragmatic concerns to overrule ethical considerations. With every falsehood, however, we erode our character and sacrifice the moral high ground. Dishonesty undercuts our credibility and undermines our influences.

Thought to Ponder

In your profession, when are you likely to face pressure to disregard the truth? What will enable you to resist those pressures?


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