Leadership Lessons From Lincoln

The following post is published with permission from John Stevenson, Principal at ClientKudos, who wrote the article for his weekly e-newsletter “The Sunday Snippet, good ideas to help you prosper.”

Our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more than 15,000 books, and has been studied as thoroughly as any figure in world history.

In 2005, Doris Kearns Goodwin published her seminal work on the 16th President titled Team of Rivals. Goodwin spent 10 years on her book and Steven Spielberg even called on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian to consult on the script for his just-released movie “Lincoln.”

Harvard Business Review senior editor Diane Coutu interviewed Goodwin a few years ago and asked her what current business leaders can learn from the great President who served almost 150 years ago. Here are highlights of Goodwins’ comments:

 He picked the best team for the good of the country

“Lincoln surrounded himself with people, including his rivals, who had strong egos and high ambitions; who felt free to question his authority; and who were unafraid to argue with him. He had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.”

He shared responsibility for success as well as failure

“You also have to be able to figure out how to share credit for your success with your inner team so that they feel a part of a mission. Basically, you want to create a reservoir of good feeling, and that involves not only acknowledging your errors but even shouldering the blame for the failures of some of your subordinates. Again and again, Lincoln took responsibility for what he did, and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others, and so people became very loyal to him.” 

He communicated clearly, humbly and persuasively

“History also shows that it’s essential to know how to connect to the larger public, whether that’s through radio, in the case of Franklin Roosevelt, or in Lincoln’s case, through speeches that were filled with such poetry and clarity that people felt they were watching him think and that he was telling them the truth.”

He knew how to rest and rejuvenate

“As a leader you need to know how to relax so that you can replenish your energies for the struggles facing you tomorrow. Lincoln went to the theater about a hundred times while he was in Washington. And although he suffered from a certain melancholy, he had a tremendous sense of humor and would entertain people long into the night with his stories.”

The stakes and the pressure were unbelievably high for a young nation in peril, yet Lincoln was able to meet the challenge with perseverance, patience and high emotional intelligence. No matter the century, these are timeless leadership lessons.

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