In the Spielberg movie Lincoln, there is a scene where the bombastic and powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, Thaddeus Stevens privately debates the president. Stevens, a staunch abolitionist, is concerned about Lincoln’s apparent equivocation on the issue of slavery, and urges unwavering adherence to a moral compass that points unambiguously toward “True North.” Lincoln counters that this is all well and good, except when your moral compass steers you into a swamp. Your True North doesn’t matter much then. You’re stuck in the swamp.
I’m not sure who came up with the brilliant swamp metaphor, Lincoln or screenplay writer Tony Kushner. Still, the tension between principles and pragmatism is at the root of many dilemmas facing leaders today.
Some leaders simplistically frame this in “either/or” terms: you can either be true to your principles or completely abandon your principles by succumbing to outside pressures. But extraordinary leaders like Lincoln seek a more nuanced understanding by harnessing the dialectical tension—forging solutions that embrace both the principles they hold dear while at the same time acknowledging the real-world factors that are often beyond their control.
Thaddeus Stevens was put to the test when asked to speak in front of the House of Representatives during the critical debate on the Thirteen Amendment that would abolish slavery. Stevens had long argued that slavery should be abolished on the basis of the principle that all men are equal, regardless of their race. But on this occasion, he is cautioned that a full-throated and candid articulation of his views would be amplified by a fickle press, instigating fear among crucial Representatives, and lead to certain defeat of the measure.
At the moment of truth, Stevens backs down from his purely principled position, softening to the more palatable argument that all men should be treated equally under the law. While certain radical Republicans were aghast, his more tempered plea was exactly what was called for under the circumstances, and the constitutional amendment passed by a meager two votes.
Stevens could have stuck to his original moral compass, which would have steered him directly into the swamp. Instead, through his struggle, he discovered a new authentic True North voice, one that worked in service of his ultimate purpose, the abolition of slavery.
The type of challenge that Stevens faced is very common in leadership. When we are tested through struggle, we need to clarify which values are most important to us. Very often a careful examination of the natural tension between principles and pragmatism fashions a deeper understanding of our moral compass. We seek a path that simultaneously honors our True North, while at the same time avoiding the swamp.