Abraham Lincoln’s Beard

My dear little Miss…As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?

Abe beforeClean shaven presidential candidate Lincoln wrote this letter in response to 11 year old Grace Bedell’s suggestion that he grow a beard. Though prohibited by both age and gender from voting, Grace was none-the-less an ardent Lincoln supporter. Grace’s father and “part” of her four brothers were already on the Lincoln band wagon, but Grace thought they could do better. She wrote the candidate explaining, “…if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”   By modern standards Grace was a one-girl focus group.

That Lincoln took time to kindly respond to the concerns of a young girl just weeks before the election says something about both the age and the man. (It also says something about the U.S. Postal Service that a letter written in rural New York on October 15th was being responded to from rural Illinois on October 19th!) But it didn’t end there. When Lincoln passed through Grace’s home town on the way to his inauguration four months later, he called her to the platform, gave her a kiss and pointed out that he’d taken her advice. After 50 beardless years, Abraham Lincoln had sprouted a full set of whiskers on the recommendation of a very unlikely source. And that’s what’s really remarkable about this story.

You see, Lincoln did something most of us struggle with—he tried something new. He was initially reluctant because he thought people might think he was putting on airs or perhaps he feared they would think him foolish. Neither impression would be a good thing just prior to an election. Yet within a few weeks of receiving Grace Bedell’s letter, he retired his razor. He took a risk, did something different and it worked.  The bearded Lincoln is an iconic image. The beard provides him with a gravitas that seems to frame his personality and capture his spirit. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how he succeeded so long without it!

Abe AfterBut there’s something more significant going on here as well. Lincoln’s decision to grow a beard indicates a willingness to take advice from unusual sources. We all know people whose advice and counsel we value when making decisions. Often we value these sources because they tend to confirm what we already believe—they reflect our common knowledge about life and the world. If someone new offers another perspective or frames an issue differently, we tend to dismiss it. Yet positive change and breakthrough thinking comes from the fringes of our experience. Personal and professional growth come when we accept and try out ideas that are discordant with our usual way of thinking. This doesn’t mean you should try every harebrained scheme and act on every crackpot notion you encounter. But if the source is credible, don’t discount the idea just because it’s different. The hallmark of a truly great leader is the willingness to consider and act on something radically new. So give it a shot—you might end up with your own version of Lincoln’s beard!      —Ebert


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