True North: A Lesson in Leadership From Spielberg’s Lincoln

I saw Lincoln about two weeks ago, and the movie has stuck with me every since I saw the film. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a phenomenal movie across every possible category. Abraham Lincoln has always been my favorite public servant and president. I was left mesmerized by the film, and have been meaning to go see it again. I can see this movie being played in classrooms across the country to teach students about Lincoln, leadership, Civil Rights, Civil War Era, and so many other topics critical to American history.

Story Highlights

  • Spielberg’s Lincoln brings to light what it means to be a leader
  • Lincoln’s “True North” analogy provides a challenge to all leaders
  • For leaders, actions need to map stated values which you believe

Yet, there was one scene in the movie that I cannot stop thinking about. At one point, Lincoln is speaking in private with Thaddeus Stevens, who holds a powerful position as the Ways and Means Chairman. Lincoln is talking with Stevens about his vote and lobbying support for passing the 13th Amendment in the House. Lincoln and Stevens are talking in the basement of a kitchen, Stevens, a fierce abolitionist who has spent his entire life fighting for racial equality is debating Lincoln on the 13th amendment, that it does not go far enough in terms of Civil Rights, and their differing views on post-war reconstruction.

Lincoln proceeds to give an eloquent analogy of true north and where your moral compass can steer you if you are not careful. Lincoln reminds Stevens that “true north” is a noble aim and essential, but in the end, going true north means that there are challenges along the way. The journey is not linear, the path is not clear and values will be challenged. Lincoln challenges Stevens to think that if you cannot endure the journey, and you get stuck in a swamp, what good is it to know true north?

I am not sure if this story is based on Lincoln or if the authors/script writers wrote an unbelievable analogy about being a change agent for organizations. As leaders, managers, employees, and whatever hat we put on a day-to-day basis, Lincoln has identified the core challenge for us. Constantly there is a tension between our moral compass and the reality of environment and surroundings. We simply cannot get our intended and desired outcomes blindingly traveling north. We’ll get stuck in a swamp, no matter how righteous or just the journey.

This is one of the most important traits for a leader and change agents in an organization. People have a clear understanding of what is right, and what is wrong. But the revelation of knowing the right decision is often trumped by the ability to go through the journey.

In Lincoln, we are challenged to do more as leaders. The Lincoln film challenges us to know that sometimes the journey will be rough, and our obligation is to have people follow us along the way and steer them towards true north. How we get there and how we lead – that’s not an easy task and there is no easy answer.

For me, I took a lot out of that scene, and as we are constantly challenged to meet outcomes and challenge ourselves, we return to how important communication, transparency, collaboration and trust is for leadership. Although these words sound great, leadership transcends and goes beyond just the buzz words, it’s about actions, and how actions meet stated values.

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Paul Alberti

Pat, I have not seen the movie so I can not speak to the actual scenes. But I am always leary of teaching history based on Hollywood’s interpretation of reality. It may be a good introduction to ideas and concepts, but I would seriously research the facts before claiming it the truth. I have heard it is a good movie as movies go.

Pat Fiorenza

Thanks for the comment Paul. I would also be leery of teaching history based on Hollywood adaptions of history. From most of the reviews I have read, the are saying Lincoln is fairly accurate, with a few scenes that were dramatized for Hollywood. But, I think that to show this movie to teach people about leadership is a must, there are a lot of fantastic scenes and lessons of how to lead, and if taught right, can be a valuable experience.

Steven Ollek

Ditto Pat – saw the movie as well, as since I currently live and work in Richmond, was an incredible experience! I’ve told people about this same part of the movie and can’t wait to own the movie to watch again and again.

Pat Fiorenza

Great! Thanks for the comment, Steve. I just got a $25 movie gift card as a belated birthday present, might use it to go see Lincoln 2 more times!, and will for sure own and watch the movie over and over. I am in DC – right after I saw Lincoln I went down to the Lincoln Monument, I felt obligated!

Dale Fowler


Your post made me really want to see the movie now. I appreciate your insights from the movie about leadership. As for Paul’s comment about using the movie to teach the history, one effective way to deal with Hollywood’s version of history is to have students analyze how the movie portrays the events compared to what historians say about it. Excellent post, Pat