Choosing the Words of Strategy

Sections of this topic

    The strategist is one who is concerned about the future of his or her personal, family or organizational life, and spends time and thought considering the best possible direction upon which to set forth. Yes, this makes us all strategists.

    Abraham Lincoln, Strategic Communicator
    Abraham Lincoln used the language of empathy and metaphor to communicate strategy to the Amercian people.

    Strategy is, simply, chosen direction. Smaller, perhaps, than the mission or purpose of an individual, group, or organization — strategy can nonetheless be considered the directions we choose in our quest toward mission fulfillment. To establish direction, a strategy must be articulated to others.

    That is, in addition to establishing a course for the future, one must get others on board for the ride. Influential strategists Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad posit that strategic leaders must not stop at analysis and resolve, they must spend quality time engaging others in understanding the chosen strategy.

    So as a planner of strategy, you too must spend considerable time communicating… expressing… teaching… articulating. You must find ways to lead, inspire and move others. How to do this? Let’s look to one of the greatest communicators in history, Abraham Lincoln.

    Lincoln’s deep empathy for the people of America motivated him to agonize over finding just the right words to truly articulate his vision of the future. Gary Wills points out in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America that in Lincoln’s three minute address during the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, he reestablished the meaning to which Americans attribute the Constitution.

    Surely, you recognize the words, which began: “four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

    This brief introductory sentence encapsulates what we now remember as what the American Civil War was about – freedom and equality for all people. Gary Wills and other historians tell us, though, that until Lincoln spoke these words, these ideals were not what the war “was about.” Wills says that today the Civil War means, to most Americans, “what Lincoln wanted it to mean.”

    The majority of Southerners fighting in the war were not slave owners. Rather, many believed that they were fighting for a “way of life.” Larger issues such as the dynamics of the Southern economy also contributed to the situation. At the 1864 gathering at Gettysburg, Lincoln knew that he needed to articulate what the nation was fighting for — and he did.

    Lincoln’s facility for expression — his “way with words” – enabled him to frame the meaning of the war for the people of his day in a manner that would empower Americans to frame their quest for civil rights a century later, and to the present day.

    Lincoln’s use of the Declaration’s phrase about all men being equal elevated the notion to a single, supreme proposition about which we must all agree. Wills says that “by accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.”

    Now from Lincoln back to you. Remember that you are surely the master strategist for something. Whether we are talking about your own life, that of your family, or that of an organization you help to lead, it is important to articulate a desired direction for the future. To talk about the future in the manner that Lincoln did, try the following:

    1) Don’t just state facts and numbers. Speak in emotional terms in order to connect with other people. Talk about the meaning of the places and accomplishments toward which you travel. A great way to bring emotion and meaning into your words is through story telling. Lincoln was a master story teller, endearing him to those around him. For more on this, look for an article called Story Telling that Moves People containing an interview with Robert McKee, in the June 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review. You can download it from, or write to me at and I’ll send you a synopsis.

    2) Use metaphors and imagery to convey a larger meaning. Lincoln’s well known metaphor that “a house divided cannot stand’ served to perfectly state his strategic position on matters of cessation. As another, Lincoln’s use of the phrase “the mystic chords of memory,” invoked a rich and spiritual understanding of how the American people are connected to each other… people of the north and south… people of the past and the present. A metaphor always draws the reader or listener from a specific matter in the here and now to a more general and larger truth to be told. For more thoughts on the use of metaphor in strategy, see my blog post called Metaphors Be With You: The Strategist as Poet.