How Lincoln and Lead Like Jesus Saved a Friendship

How Lincoln and Lead Like Jesus Saved a Friendship

In some versions of the Lead Like Jesus Encounter, participants are asked to discuss a story from the Civil War. In it, a Colonel Scott, one of the commanders of troops guarding the Capital from attack by Confederate forces in Northern Virginia, comes to President Lincoln to request a dear favor.

Scott’s wife had been in Washington to help nurse him back to health from an illness. But on the way home the steamship on which she was a passenger was involved in a collision in Chesapeake Bay and she drowned.

Scott asked his regimental command for leave to arrange her burial and to comfort his children. His request was denied because a battle seemed imminent and every officer would be essential to Washington’s defense. Scott was bereft – but determined. He pressed his request all the way up the chain of command to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton denied his request too.

He had one last recourse. He went to the White House to appeal to Lincoln, his commander in chief. Late on a Saturday night, he was the last visitor allowed in. Lincoln listened to his appeal. Then, as Scott recalled, Lincoln exploded.

“Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape these constant calls? Why do you follow me here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office, where they have charge of all matters of papers and transportation?”

Scott told Lincoln that he has already been to visit Stanton, who turned down his request. “Then you probably ought not go down the river,” Lincoln replied, adding that it would be wrong for him to overrule Stanton. He also let out a little steam, telling Scott:

“You ought to remember that I have other duties to attend to – heaven knows, enough for one man – and I can give no thought to questions of this kind.” Then he sent him away with the justification, “Everything must yield to the paramount duty of finishing the war.”

Scott left crushed and brooding.

Nothing Lincoln said in denying Scott’s request was not true. The war was pressing in on Washington. The Union was in peril. The bloody toll was much higher than anyone had anticipated – and rising each day. Lincoln had supported his subordinate, Stanton.

There is more to the story, but I don’t want to ruin the exercise for you. Suffice to say I thought a lot about Lincoln’s first response and his follow-up when I got up this morning.

You see, last night I felt a lot like Lincoln – overburdened and stretched to my limit, even if I have to admit that the particular circumstances fell well short of war. That’s when a friend wrote to say that a presentation he had sent me to post on our website contained a crucial error. He had fixed the files to upload, but he needed me to do that.

I felt a lot like Lincoln – overburdened and stretched to my limit.

Actually, he needed me to appeal to our webmaster because I don’t know how to do it. It may not seem like a huge thing as I tell it now, but my friend’s message cut to my heart. For over a month his emails had poured in about the presentation he was preparing. When I went to visit family, his emails followed. It quickly seemed to become his obsession. For my part, I first saw it as a peripheral distraction. But as the emails piled up, it grew to an aggravation.

When I finally got what I thought was a final version to upload, I wrote to our webmaster to ask for help in uploading. He was very helpful. But the first presentation didn’t look right – it was confusing – so I had to ask him to try again. His second effort was a huge improvement, but not exactly what I had asked for. More aggravation. But then my friend was happy with it, so I was pleased to put the whole thing in my rearview mirror, where I wouldn’t have to give it another thought. Thank God!

How foolish of me! On a Sunday afternoon I glanced at the email on my phone and there was his -- informing me of the crucial error. For me his project had become a gaping wound into which he was pouring salt. He apologized ... but I wasn’t ready to hear it, not now, as I prepared to leave the next day for an important conference.

I exploded. I sent him a “passionate” response, not the least bit kind or sympathetic, calling his cherished project “a huge time-sucker” and lamenting that I would have to address the matter again as I entered the busiest week of my year. His request had stung me. No doubt my reply did the same to him. I did ask him to send the corrected files and said I would address the problem when I could find the time – but I didn’t notice that he had sent me the corrected files with his email. Yup, I was blind with rage.

The next morning I woke up early to get a jump on all the deadlines facing me before I left for the conference. But my first thought was not about any of those things. It was about how Abraham responded to Colonel Scott’s request the morning after he had exploded.

Like Lincoln, I had a lot of reasons for my outrage. But I didn’t have any excuses.

So after I got a cup of coffee I sat down and sent him an apology. And soon after, I got an email from him accepting it. He added that under the circumstances he deserved my rage. But he didn’t. Just as Scott hadn’t deserved Lincoln’s rage so long ago.

(Partial spoiler alert) To Lincoln’s credit, he recognized his error. And he showed me my own.Ephesians 4:26 says, "In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."

A friendship is back on track, restored and even rejuvenated. So is our shared mission.

A friendship is back on track, restored and even rejuvenated.

Thank you, Lincoln. And thank you, Lead Like Jesus, for connecting me to his iconic leadership. I trust we are making Jesus smile.

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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.