Lincoln Learned to Lead

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 148 years ago, yet millions of Americans honor his memory by visiting his memorial in Washington, D.C., every year. For many, Lincoln, our 16th president, remains an icon of leadership, a leadership that has been continually examined, most recently in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Lincoln.”

In my book, Measure of a Leader, I describe 12 aspects of a good leader divided into four key categories:

  • Momentum — effective leaders inspire their followers to respond to their directions and vision.
  • Commitment — effective leaders focus their followers on achieving their goals.
  • Initiative — effective leaders encourage their followers to work together.
  • Reciprocity — effective leaders earn the collective effort of their followers because their actions reciprocally support their followers’ actions and goals.

I would say that the opposite of these qualities exist in people who, though in leadership positions, are not good leaders. Rather than momentum, such “leaders” create stagnation because they are unwilling to take decisive action and no clear direction exists. Rather than commitment, ineffective leaders often surround themselves with sycophants driven by their own agendas. Poor leaders are divisive, pitting their followers against one another. Poor leaders never earn the collective effort of their subordinates because the environment created by poor leadership is that of every man for himself.

In her article, “10 Qualities That Made Abraham Lincoln a Great Leader,” Catherine L. Moreton, recounts those elements listed by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin points out that Lincoln appointed the brightest political minds of the time to his cabinet, even those men who were his staunch political rivals. In other words, he listened to conflicting viewpoints, informed himself and made difficult decisions accordingly. He was self-examining and by acknowledging his own weaknesses, he developed the ability to address and change them. For example, knowing that he was predisposed to giving people too many chances, he set deadlines for those who reported to him with clear and fair consequences for not completing doable tasks. Lincoln imposed behavioral interventions on himself. For example, if he was angry with an individual, he wrote an angry letter that he didn’t send. If, on occasion, he lost his temper, he apologized — in writing or with a kind gesture — and he refused to hold grudges. Lincoln rewarded himself with humor, time for relaxation and recuperation, and he encouraged those in his administration to do the same.

Goodwin relates that, during the darkest hours of the Civil War, many of Lincoln’s confidants tried to convince him to bend on his stance against slavery. He stuck by this guiding principle and wouldn’t yield; he compromised on strategy, not on principle. He was an ethical and “honest” man who went out among the troops, visited them in hospitals and talked directly with the American people, listening to their concerns and complaints. Finally, he did a wonderful job of communicating his goals and how he wanted to achieve them.

Lincoln’s leadership skills are timeless. Some think that great leaders are born, not made. Possibly there is some truth to that, but Lincoln learned leadership. He behaved his way into being a successful leader by shaping his skills on the job and under extreme pressure. No wonder so many remember and honor his leadership legacy. If only more tried harder to emulate it.