Even though Abraham Lincoln had no precedent for how to use it, he brilliantly integrated the new electronic communication of his day to help save our country. He did this by using the telegraph system to stay in touch with his generals in the field during the Civil War and was the first president to use this quick, long-range communication method in this way.
Lincoln seemed almost obsessed with this tool at times, much like we are today with our smart phones. That’s not to say that he used the telegraph as his only mode of communication, but he certainly grasped the importance of using it to help him in his job as Commander in Chief.
“Lincoln had done more than simply counsel on strategy; he used the telegraph to take command… The president telegraphed direct orders to generals in the field, moving men around as though on a chessboard… The wire became a way for the president to stay informed and assert himself… [The telegraph was] the tool Lincoln used for reinforcing his resolve and making sure that neither distance nor intermediaries diffused his leadership.” (Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails)
Technology Lessons from Lincoln
Not only does Lincoln’s use of the telegraph reveal another element of his timeless leadership genius, but it also reveals to us how the technology of the day – whatever that might be – can draw a person in and seemingly shut out the rest of the world. In other words, technology can make us closer and further away at the same time.
“Lincoln hardly left his seat in [the telegraph] office and waited with deep anxiety for each succeeding dispatch… The president consumed the electronically delivered updates… No longer was Lincoln content to sit idly by and await information, he was actively in communication with the front.” (Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails)
While we can understand why Lincoln obsessed over these messages during this pivotal time in our nation’s history, we can also understand how doing so likely affected the other areas of his life. The correlation between t-Mail and e-Mail might not be perfect, but it does help us understand that technology always has had potential for consuming us.
Avoid Being Consumed
Lincoln took frequent carriage rides with his wife. He loved interacting with his son even while working, and he often corresponded in detail to others by hand-written letter. While technology at times consumed him, he also knew the importance of face-to-face and more detailed interaction.
Taking Lincoln’s cue, we can avoid being consumed by technology in the following ways:
- Leave it. Don’t take your cell phone or tablet with you to church or out to dinner with friends. Make leaving it a regular habit to help reduce its pacifier hold.
- Turn it off. When reading or playing family games, during dinner, and when friends are visiting, turn off technology and focus face-to-face. At the very least, turn off the sound.
- Avoid it at dinnertime. Make this a daily habit. Don’t let technology consume this important touch point.
- Have tech-free family time. Play cards or a board game. Have a family reading time. Exercise together. Make technology off limits for everyone during these times.
- Have tech-filled family time. Technology is not evil. In fact, it has tremendous value, especially when used to build relationships. Have a family Wii night or play electronic Scrabble together. Spend time together in technology.
- Let technology help you. I’m a huge proponent of using technology for keeping track of appointments, making lists, and staying connected as a family. Especially with a husband who travels a lot for work, technology makes staying in touch a lot easier. Let technology be a tool but not a master.
When Lincoln went home, he did not have the telegraph with him since telegraph wires were not yet run to the White House. We don’t have that built-in off switch. We have to choose to use technology rather than let it consume us.