What We Can Learn from Lincoln’s Leadership

Posted: October 1, 2008 in History

I’ve been reading Team of Rivals, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln’s political genius and his outstanding leadership. It is also about a whole period and the lives of his main political rivals.

One of the things I find most striking is the amount of adversity, hardship, sorrow and disappointment that men and women of this era had to endure. Even the wealthiest had to contend with the premature death of loved ones, illness, disease, and separation. Others who were not as well off, such as Lincoln himself, had to contend with physical and material hardship that we can scarcely imagine today. Poverty and financial ruin were always close, as was physical violence.

Despite that they led productive lives, got over disappointments and depression (economic and personal), educated themselves, and developed enormously fruitful relationships with political allies, friends, and their wives, who were their consciences and primary moral supports.

Through all of this, we have the riveting portrait of Abraham Lincoln, one of most exemplary leaders in history. He led the United States during its most harrowing period and maintained a principled stance against the spread of slavery and in favour of the integrity of the Union.

What set Lincoln apart was the peculiar combination of characteristics and habits that made him a highly effective leader, a great statesman, and a superb commander-in-chief. A review of some these is highly instructive.

  1. He was widely viewed as a poorly educated country bumpkin with uncouth manners, supposedly ill at ease in cultivated circles. This led to him to be consistently underestimated by his opponents, but he used that to his advantage as a means of relating to “common folk” and to disarm his rivals.
  2. He was ambitious and eager for the attention and respect of his fellow men. His desire for self-improvement and self-learning led him to read extensively, to argue and debate on all points with anyone who would engage him, and to develop his memory and skills of logic and reasoning.
  3. He developed an outstanding ability to communicate with people of all types, whether in public addresses to thousands, or to individuals in private conversation. In doing so, he was particularly apt at using powerful metaphors and stories, both of which conveyed his beliefs and sometimes-lofty concepts in a form that was unassuming yet highly effective.
  4. He was incredibly persistent in the face of continued setbacks. The highest federal office he occupied prior to the presidency was Congressman, and that only for one mandate. He lost every single senate race he attempted, sometimes having to endure last minute defeat due to supporters who turned on him.
  5. His nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860 was the result of meticulous planning and his ability to collect on favours and relationships built up over 25 years in politics. Lincoln rarely let anything to chance and consistently refused to credit biased information from his allies and supporters. This gave him a realistic portrait of his chances, which in turn impelled him to create a highly effective political machine, in many ways foreshadowing the sophisticated electoral practices of later decades.
  6. Whether by disposition or design, Lincoln seemed unable to harbour resentments against political rivals and enemies. This allowed him to “keep his friends close, and his enemies even closer.” He was therefore able to turn these rivalries to his advantage on numerous occasions through his magnanimity and capacity for forgiveness.
  7. He deliberately created his presidential cabinet from men who he knew would debate him on many points and who would provide a counterpoint and counterweight, both to each other and to him. Thus he continued a life-long habit of seeking advice from unfavourable quarters while treating the advice received from loyal supporters with a grain of salt.
  8. He always accepted the blame for the mistakes of those around him, including the members of his own cabinet. This disarmed most conflicts before they could fester and undermine his ability to govern.

Lincoln was not the angel that he was portrayed to be in subsequent hagiography. He believed in the superiority of the white man and wished for some form of segregation between blacks and whites. But he also believed that slavery should be held to where it existed, in the hope that it would eventually disappear, probably out of economic necessity due to the need for “free labor,” and a gradual realization in the southern slave states that the practice was unconscionable in a modern country that upheld liberty for all and the pursuit of happiness.

Studying Lincoln’ leadership and his era is a highly instructive pursuit. Team of Rivalsprovides unparalleled insight that contributes to this end.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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