Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership Genius

Discussion
Jul 10, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson


“I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against
me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” –
Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln is considered by many to be the greatest president in the history of the United States. In the recently published, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, author/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a detailed look into the decisions and leadership style that made it possible for the President to forge alliances and begin rebuilding a country during one of its darkest of hours.


In an interview with Forbes.com, Ms. Kearns Goodwin said Mr. Lincoln’s style offers valuable lessons for individuals in leadership positions today.


Among the most important of Mr. Lincoln’s qualities was his willingness to seek a wide variety of opinions on important issues and bring people into the organization that possessed knowledge and strengths superior to his own.


“Lincoln had a quiet self confidence that allowed him to surround himself by people better known than he was,” said Ms. Kearns Goodwin. “He knew they’d argue and debate with him. In order to strengthen his own leadership he knew that if he could have that leadership in his own political family, it would make him a better leader.”


“Lincoln also had the ability to absorb and listen well to what people were feeling and thinking. He could see both sides of the issue,” she said.


The President was known for acknowledging and learning from his own mistakes. He also took the heat off subordinates by accepting responsibility when they made errors.


When things were not going well, Mr. Lincoln made a point of being even more visible. He went out to meet Union troops to rally them when times seemed bleak. This was especially important during a period of crisis, according to Ms. Kearns Goodwin, because “setting an example is the most potent thing of all.”


Moderator’s Comment: What lessons do you think business leaders today can learn from Abraham Lincoln? Is there one
lesson, in particular, that you believe is especially critical in today’s business environment?

George Anderson – Moderator

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12 Comments on "Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership Genius"


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David Zahn
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Just to be contrarian here and in the hopes of being compelling – Lincoln is the same guy who “led” the country into its ONLY Civil War, right? Is that the great leader we aspire to emulate?

Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
14 years 7 months ago

Mr. Lincoln’s work ethic and dogged determination also earned him much respect. This made people want to surround him. Plus he was smart enough to know his limitations and chose advisors to help him in those areas. He didn’t say much, but when he did people listened. And finally, he was likeable. An attribute sorely missed in today’s society.

Ian Percy
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

This sounds like a book well worth reading. Three dimensions of Lincoln leadership leap out for me – and they happen to correspond to the three weakest dimensions of typical corporate leadership today.

1) Creating teams with diversity in intelligence. A truly strong team is made of people who think differently. This means more than a difference in ‘what’ they think – it’s more about ‘how’ they think.

2) Making listening and thinking a major activity of leadership. Every leader brags about their “open door” – the problem is no one is home.

3) Being even more visible when times are tough. Leaders must, by definition, be visible anyway – but especially when people need a spiritual boost. We’ve known for a long time that people spend increasingly less time with their loved ones as they approach death. It’s an attempt to avoid a difficult reality they can’t do anything about anyway. Unfortunately, corporate leaders do the same thing in times of crises.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 7 months ago

There are many lessons that business leaders could learn from Lincoln, starting with a focus on mastering paradox. Lincoln showed his mastery of paradox by skillfully providing a stable government as a foundation for the nation’s success while at the same time personally instituting massive amount of change.

Some of the paradoxes that are identifiable in Abe Lincoln’s leadership style — and appropriate today for business leaders are: He was consistent yet flexible; trusting and compassionate yet demanding and tough; a risk-taker and innovative yet patient and calculating. He always got out and about to pace the progress of things and experience problems where they counted the most yet gave much time to private analysis; loved and lauded failures yet always listened and provided listening forums for everyone.

How many key business leaders do these things today?

David Livingston
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I actually read this book (on audio in the car). Lincoln used common sense, was honest, and not greedy. This is very typical of many of my more successful clients who operate privately owned regional supermarket companies. After touring some Winn-Dixie and Albertsons stores over the weekend, those companies could have used more people like Lincoln in management.

Ben Ball
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Mr. Lincoln’s willingness to attack and/or ignore the status quo when more dramatic measures were required might be better quoted as the source of his greatness and his legacy. Indeed, his name also appears on at least one list as the worst president of all time. The criteria for that list is documented violations of the Constitution while in office, and Mr. Lincoln anchored that list with no less than eleven. The most egregious and famous being the suspension of habeas corpus.

The quote used to open this discussion couldn’t be more accurate or appropriate. Lincoln seems to have known full well that his legacy would be written by history’s perception of the justness of his cause, for his actions were undoubtedly criminal.

How do we evaluate business leaders in today’s world of “instant legacy”? For that matter, how are we evaluating our politicians? I wonder if Lincoln could do today what he did 150 years ago?

Jeff Davis
Guest
Jeff Davis
14 years 7 months ago

LISTENING to a wide variety of opinions isn’t the same as HOLDING a wide variety of opinions. Strong, effective leadership requires decisiveness and consistency. Examining an issue from all sides allows a leader to identify the best course of action in the end.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

The first three comments are great. The only thing I would add is that the team was not only diverse people, but diverse smart people who offered dissenting opinions. Having these people around would create lively discussions airing different points of view, solutions, attitudes, and opinions. Having the courage to listen, sift through the information, make a decision, AND take responsibility for the consequences makes for a remarkable leader – one who has humility, is not threatened by others’ knowledge, is secure in his ability to sort through differing perspectives, and the strength to make the decision and accept responsibility.

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

There’s no doubt that Lincoln was one of the finest leaders the world has ever seen. But he had no succession plan. Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and their successors’ leadership failures were legendary, and the country suffered terribly. Reconstruction was a 100+ year disaster for the former slaves that Lincoln freed. Great retail leaders are not often followed by those equal to themselves.

Ranney RAMSEY
Guest
Ranney RAMSEY
14 years 7 months ago
Absolutely favorite topic is Lincoln’s leadership skills. I have been very impressed – from my own experience – how Lincoln would write letters expressing – often- his frustration and anger with persons – and then file the letters away and never send them. He had a very good knack for understanding how to communicate with people (setting aside his public addresses). I have used this technique numerous times and saved myself much acrimonious and unproductive conflict. But he could be brutally honest in his communication of expectations – as his letter to General Joseph Hooker when he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac – admitting Hooker’s insubordination in the past he says openly that “I will run the risk of your dictatorship if you will produce the victories.” One of the other commentators mentioned the pressure of modern media- but Lincoln and his contemporaries also struggled with the influence of the newspapers and the telegraph which must have strongly contributed to the demise of the Democratic party when speeches reported in one part… Read more »
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 7 months ago
During this time of immigration debate, it would be valuable to hearken back to Lincoln’s wisdom and leadership. He led during a time when German and Irish immigration (post 1845) was increasing and creating anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment. A group of Protestants formed a secret fraternal organization that came to be known as the “Know Nothings.” On matters of immigration and racism, Lincoln had this to say: “I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal, except Negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for example, where despotism can… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

One thing that allowed Lincoln to achieve (relative) success was that he was given sufficient time (4 years) for things to improve under his direction…. if he had been forced out by “activist shareholders” in 1862 because he hadn’t “maximized Union returns,” he might be remembered today as little more than a footnote in the nation’s collapse.

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