Lincoln – selling for a greater good

Have I got an Amendment for you!

Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a masterclass is salesmanship. Lincoln’s challenge in persuading Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was in many ways a sales challenge. Lincoln was faced with many different constituencies and he needed to persuade each of them in different ways.

David Brooks wrote in his NYTimes column this morning that the film illustrates beautifully the challenges and the nobility of politics:

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road…

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.

The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

This is one of the central messages of my book The Art of the Sale. The ability to sell well, when harnessed to a higher purpose, is one of the greatest talents any individual can nurture or possess. Methods which might seem sleazy if used to sell debased products or services can achieve wondrous ends if put in the right hands for the right purpose. Great achievements in politics, culture, religion and business almost always involve a great sale.


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