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Following Lincoln's Lead

There is much to be learned from the life and work of our 16th president. Not without reason is he revered for his leadership during the bloodiest crisis in our nation's history. Dorothy Kearns Goodwin has written an insightful book (Team of Rivals) on Lincoln's political genius, in particular, as he worked with his cabinet during his presidency. Here are some lessons for leaders of any organization to take from this remarkable man.

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Learn from loss, failure, and mistakes while keeping an optimistic outlook.

Lincoln had many personal losses including the death of his mom when he was 9, the death of his sister when he was 18, and various political defeats as he attempted to make a name for himself. Also, early on in his presidency, the Union army was embarrassed at the battle of Bull Run. All of these defeats proved to be learning experiences as opposed to devastating losses. Lincoln learned from failure and rarely made the same mistake twice. He was able to raise the Phoenix from the ashes on more than one occasion as he never lost his hope and optimism for a successful conclusion to the story.

Allow humor, laughter, and enjoyment to be a part of your organization

Edward Stanton, Lincoln's War Secretary was quite a serious fellow. He often got annoyed that Lincoln would do such frivolous things such as read contemporary humorists to entertain the crowds while awaiting news on the telegram for his re-election bid of 1864. Lincoln, on the other hand, often used humor to build relationships, relieve tension, and drive home a point. Lincoln proved that one can do very serious work while still enjoying life, laughter, and merriment to the fullest. Indeed, his laughter and storytelling were qualities that endeared him to the hearts of many.

Read deeply and widely from contemporary and historic sources.

Lincolns' formal education added up to less than a year of school, however his Personal Learning Network consisted of many of the classics of literature including The Bible and Shakespeare as well as humorists of all stripes. He had a depth and breadth of literature knowledge that consistently filled his fertile mind with wisdom, anecdotes, and lofty ideas. Being immersed in the thoughts of great men helped him craft a course for his generation in their great struggles.

Risk friendship and relationship among those you are leading.

At Lincolns' deathbed, Kearns Goodwin notes that there was not a man in the room that did not love Lincoln. He gained this affection and loyalty by the force of his personality. Words like kindness, goodness, and decency are used constantly by those who knew him well. Although he had to remove cabinet members and generals from their positions, in almost every case the affected member came to understand his decision and lost no respect for the man who had just demoted or removed him from a notable position. Lincoln built lasting and enduring friendships with his colleagues and subordinates and his motives were never in question, even by his adversaries.


Know the status of your colleagues and subordinates first hand.

Lincoln could have written the book on Management by Walking Around. He constantly sought ways to visit the front and speak directly with his generals and shake hands with the troops waging the battle. He often did this facing very real dangers and risks, which caused him to gain greater esteem in the eyes of the Union army. He was also consistently available to White House visitors (and criticized for it) giving his attention and time to all who came calling.

Think deeply and seek a multitude of council, then act decisively.

Lincoln was often criticized for moving too slowly on the slavery issue. His original intent for the war was solely to save the Union. This brought barbs from the likes of Frederick Douglas, who felt him wholly uncommitted to the cause of freeing the slaves. However, when he finally came to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, his resolve on this issue never wavered. Once he had decided the time was right to act, he held onto a position with an iron will and determination against all attacks.

Act humbly by taking no personal affront when attacked and keeping your focus on the greater good.

Lincoln's greatest quality, in my opinion was his humility. He never held a grudge or did a vindictive act against political or military enemies. If a person was going to be helpful to the cause, he would give space for that person to contribute to the effort. He followed this same path on his view of reconstruction. He did not seek a pound of flesh from the South, but rather a commitment to support the Union. He then sent the Confederate army back to their homes. Lincoln told a great story showing how much he valued humility. One of the many office seekers came to the White House seeking a prominent post. Lincoln denied his request, but he persisted in seeking ever lower ranking jobs until finally he concluded by asking if he might be given a pair of trousers. Lincoln delighted in such frank and humble folks and embodied that same humility throughout his life.

Reading this account of Lincoln's tactics and thinking were breathtaking. His keen intellect and sharp reasoning were matched by his genuine and authentic love of people. He remains the model for all Presidents to emulate and indeed any leader would benefit from applying his habits and characteristics to his/her organization.

Dan Winters
cross-posted at Principal Learner

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