Abraham Lincoln: Leadership Lessons for Our Times (and All Times)

Lincoln, who lead a team of fierce rivals during our country's biggest crisis, has a lot to teach us.
by | July 26, 2006

Doris Kearns Goodwin, an award-winning presidential historian, recently completed a book on Abraham Lincoln. What else can be written about this extraordinary leader?

The title of her book, Team of Rivals, offers a clue. Lincoln included in his first cabinet the three men who were his rivals for the Republican nomination for president: William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates. Each was better known and more accomplished than Lincoln.

But Lincoln saw the enormous crisis facing the country, and he was determined to find the most capable men to help lead the nation. Slowly, he earned their respect as he kept his eye on the enormous challenges facing them.

How did Lincoln, whose political career included two failed campaigns for the U.S. Senate, two undistinguished years in the U.S. House, and no executive experience, rise to the occasion and lead this team of fierce rivals during our country's biggest crisis?

Goodwin's book provides these insights:

Magnanimous

One of Lincoln's strongest traits was that he was generous to others, and never held a grudge. When he lost elections that he might have won, he warmly congratulated the victors. After a painful loss to Stephen Douglas in an 1858 race for the Senate, he told those who had worked hard to defeat him, "I cannot for a moment suspect you of anything dishonorable."*

Lincoln's choice of Edwin Stanton for secretary of war is another example. Stanton had treated Lincoln in a derogatory way when they first met during a trial six years earlier. However, Lincoln didn't hold grudges. He only asked: Who can organize the government for war? He'd seen Stanton's extraordinary competence and energy during their earlier encounter, and that convinced him to appoint Stanton to the critical post.

Modest, Yet Self-Confident

Lincoln loved to tell stories, and was a master at it. Often, he was the butt of his own jokes. He was well aware of his awkward gait and less-than-photogenic face, and he used self-deprecating humor to disarm his opponents.

His confidence came out in many ways, most notably in choosing three rivals for his cabinet. When asked why he'd selected them, he replied, "We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet.... I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services."

Political Skills

Lincoln had a great ability to keep his finger on the pulse of public sentiment. And he understood that one of his most important roles was to educate people and shape public opinion. As he put it, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."

Lincoln long believed that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet, he didn't voice that opinion in his political campaigns. As passions grew over the slavery issue, he modified his position and resolved to free those slaves in the Confederate states. But he came to this slowly, and later said that "had the [Emancipation] Proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it." Lincoln saw how emancipating slaves in the South would benefit the war effort. As he helped others see the military benefits of emancipation, their support for it grew. It's important to note that Lincoln saw emancipation as a highly moral act, the one thing he thought he would be remembered for, but he also saw the strategic value in it, and that helped convince others to support it.

Empathy

Lincoln excelled at sensing others' needs and capabilities. Because he was so good at putting himself in the place of others, he found the most effective ways to connect with people. This ability gained him life-long supporters.

In 1854, he gave his first major anti-slavery speech. The previous day, Stephen Douglas had spoken for three hours on the same topic. Lincoln was moved to respond, and gave an impassioned speech. Rather than castigate slave owners and call them immoral (as many abolitionists did), Lincoln did a remarkable thing: He denied any fundamental differences between those who did and did not own slaves, remarking that "... they [slave owners] are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.... I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself."

Magnanimous, modest/self-confident, politically astute, empathetic. These lessons are as powerful today as they were in Lincoln's time. And, given the divisive, ineffectual state of American politics today, they are certainly needed.

* All quotes are from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

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