Leadership Lessons From Lincoln

I just finished the Abraham Lincoln biography, “With Malice Towards None,” by Stephen Oates. While one biography certainly does not make me an authority on such a complex man, I did take away some leadership lessons. The work humanizes Lincoln, showing readers he was capable of mistakes just like the rest of us. At the same time, Lincoln’s actions demonstrate the range of human possibilities in leadership.

Incorruptible Honesty
As a youth, Lincoln earned the moniker “Honest Abe” by telling the truth regardless of the consequences. His contemporaries always knew where they stood with Lincoln, good or bad. As a young attorney he was asked about honesty. “Resolve to be honest at all events,” Lincoln said. “And if in your own judgement you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

To me, honesty is more than simply not lying. Giving someone honest feedback is tough when they might not like what you have to say. But is there a better quality in a leader than unwavering, sometimes bold, honesty? If we resolve commit to this level of honesty, maybe we need to resolve to a become something other than a leader.

Resolve and Strength
The portrait of Lincoln as a leader takes shape when we see his honesty interwoven with resolve and a strong foundation of values. When it came to values he was an immovable stone. He said, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.”

In 1864 the Union was losing the Civil War.  Lincoln was considered a long shot for his second term and Washington was swarming with rumors of his eminent assassination. His cabinet and party members begged him to retract his Emancipation Proclamation, but he said he would rather die than retract a single word. How many modern leaders have this level of integrity?

Lincoln’s life is celebrated in history, but it was riddled with adversity and sadness. His mother Nancy and sister Sarah both died before he was nineteen. Later in life, he buried two sons, Eddie and Willie, the later passing in the dark days of the onset of the war. In addition, the loss of life on both sides of the war tormented Lincoln. No president has ever been tested like Lincoln, the standard-setter for strength in the face of adversity.

Lincoln was a complex leader. He was able to adjust his leadership style to different situations.  He had the ability to give direction and let his people get results on their own, and he was not afraid to let his reports make mistakes. But he was also able to take control when needed.

Compare Lincoln’s management of the infamous procrastinating General George B. McClellan to that of the general that won the war, Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln had a fierce intolerance for inaction and after months of giving McClellan room to make his own decisions, Lincoln snatched  control of the army. He said of failed generals like McClellan that “Our generals have not yet made up their minds that we are involved in an awful war. Our officers seem to think the war can be won by plans and strategy. That is not true. Only hard and tough fighting will win.”

Conversely, Lincoln loved General Grant and allowed him to win the war his way. Grant captured Vicksburg and Chattanooga, a real turning point in the war, through nontraditional methods a micro-manager would never direct or approve of. And when the time came to shake-up command, Lincoln promoted Grant to General in Chief of all Union armies. Lincoln rewarded results and execution –– not trying or planning.

Winning People Over
Lincoln’s honesty, strength, and visionary management were effective because of his ability to control his emotions and win people over. He never carried a grudge and understood that his team, consisting of men of principle, were bound to have differences. Even when Salmon Chase, a member of his cabinet, ran a blistering campaign against him in the 1964 Republican primary, he chose to keep him on board and measure him on his merits. Lincoln would later appoint Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,

He believed that people could not be lead through coercion. He believed in leadership through “persuasion, kind, unassuming, persuasion… [and] that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.”

Indeed, Lincoln sought first to understand before seeking to be understood. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, remarked in 1964, “Surrounded by all sorts of conflicting claims, by traitors, by half-hearted, timid men, by Border Statesmen, and Free Statesmen, by radical Abolitionists and Conservatives, he has listened to all, weighed the words of all, waited, observed, yielded now here and now there, but in the main kept one inflexible, honest purpose, and drawn the national ship through.” Quirky, charming and humorous, Lincoln quipped to Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this big war.”

Oratory and Politics
As evidenced by his legendary speeches, Lincoln was a master communicator. From his interest in poetry as a boy, to his epic debates with Stephen A. Douglas during his 1858 campaign for congress, to Gettysburg and his inauguration speeches –– Lincoln was known as an expert logician, with a superb command of the English language. His speeches have rhythm and the deep ringing elegance of the truth. At his first inauguration address he closed with this:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. we must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

He was also cunning politician. He told moderate democrats and wavering republicans that they had a better chance for federal jobs if they voted for the thirteenth amendment. The amendment passed by three votes. His construction of a bipartisan cabinet, composed of radicals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, secured his second presidential election by an electorate count of 212 to 21.

On March 4, 1965, just forty days before his death, Lincoln stepped to the podium to deliver his second inaugural address. At the age of fifty-six, he stood before the crowd as a model leader: honest, strong, calculated, convincing and polished. For a moment the clouds gave way to a magnificent “sunburst” that Lincoln later said “made my heart jump.” Among the audience of thousands was a handsome young actor named John Wilkes Booth, whom Lincoln saw perform at Ford’s Theater two years earlier. Lincoln would concluded his brilliant speech –– the capstone of a life ended too soon, that saved the greatest nation in world, completed the vision of its founding fathers, and perhaps preserved republic-based government for all the world –– with this soliloquy summarizing his leadership:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right; let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”