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Lincoln and Leadership

January 6, 2014

As a former history teacher I’ve always been fascinated with the American Civil War.   Just recently I finally got around to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, an in-depth examination of Abraham Lincoln’s political career.  I still haven’t finished the book, but as I’m reading I can’t help but take note of Lincoln’s leadership qualities, and how they transcend both time and circumstance.  I’d like to touch on a few “takeaways” from the book that I found particularly poignant about Lincoln in regards to leadership:

1) Preparation– Lincoln was a tireless worker who studied diligently before making a decision.  This was a habit he developed as a lawyer in Illinois.  During his law career, he earned a reputation among his peers as being extremely well-prepared to argue his case. This work ethic carried over to his political career, where he spent long hours researching the various important issues of the day.  One example of this was his stance on the slavery question during  the election of 1860.  In the months leading up to the election he extensively researched the history of the slavery question in the United States, focusing especially on the Constitution.  Lincoln knew that the founding fathers had communicated their vision for the slavery issue.  It was this study that led to the development of the Republican platform for that election- that slavery would be permitted within the states where it had already existed, but would not be allowed to spread to new territories.

2) Awareness– Lincoln had an incredible grasp of the public’s opinion.  Throughout his presidency he was under constant pressure, especially in the face of disastrous casualties and tragic loss of life.  This environment could have caused a lesser man to succumb to pressure and deviate from his course of action.  Lincoln, however, knew that he had prepared adequately, and that ultimately the American public agreed with his principles.  During the early stages of the war, for example, when losses were piling up and the Union army was failing to drive back the rebellion, an uprising of peace democrats who were known as the “Copperheads” began to gain political traction by pushing for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy in order to end the war and cease the loss of life.  Lincoln, knew, however, that the American people were strong and that they wanted the rebellion defeated to honor those losses.  Ultimately this was confirmed through the election process, as Republicans won crucial mid-term elections in 1862.

3) Timing– Lincoln knew instinctively when to wait and when to act.  He had strong beliefs about the issues of the day and he possessed the power to impose his will if he chose.  He understood, however, that the timing of events were crucial in determining their ultimate success.  The passing of the 13th amendment, as dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, is perhaps the best example of this.  After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the rebel states as a consequence of the President’s expanded war-time powers, Lincoln knew that the abolition of slavery must be a consequence of the war.  He also knew that it must be accomplished through the Constitutional amendment process, so as to legitimize its existence for future generations.  Lincoln waited on this issue throughout the war, and it was only when Union victory was imminent did he press the issue.  When the timing was right, Lincoln acted vigorously and forcefully to ensure the amendment’s passing.

4) Temperament– Lincoln rarely let on that he was troubled, distraught or exhausted by his work.  He made a good impression on most everyone he met and he even found time to interact casually with friends and family.  He was an expert story-teller and he drew upon his extensive knowledge of literature, philosophy, history and civics to entertain guests and lift spirits.  He was also known as a tremendous listener who paid careful attention to the many visitors he encountered during the day.  He was known as being transparent and attentive to others needs.  His authentic and genuine manner endeared him especially to the Union soldiers, the overwhelming majority of whom supported his leadership throughout the war.

5) Self-Confidence– Lincoln came from a poor background.  He had no family lineage to speak of and little formal education.  Most of his accumulated knowledge was self-taught.  Upon ascending to the presidency, however, Lincoln surrounded himself with the smartest, most capable men of the time as his closest advisors.  Some of these cabinet members had indeed been his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860.  A less-confident leader would have surrounded himself with weaker, more impressionable advisors in order to build consensus and squelch debate.  Lincoln, however, trusted his own abilities enough to allow highly capable, ambitious men to operate within his administration, knowing full well that the country needed their talent to pull through the calamitous ordeal.

6) Resolve– One of my favorite Lincoln quotes reads: “Make sure your feet are in the right place, then stand firm.”  Indeed, Lincoln’s resolve was tested throughout his presidency but his allies and enemies alike soon learned that once he had made a decision, he was not going back.  A primary example of this was his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  After considering the various circumstances of the war, as well as the historical record of presidential war powers, Lincoln made up his mind to issue the proclamation. When he brought the draft to his cabinet, the debate of whether or not to issue the proclamation was squelched immediately.  Lincoln had come to that decision on his own.  His cabinet was asked to contribute ideas on what to include in the document.

Abraham Lincoln was a remarkable leader.  His presidency serves as an inspiration for leaders everywhere.  I, for one, take great comfort in knowing the pressure under which he led, the stakes of his decisions and the conviction with which he went about doing his work.  Furthermore, his stewardship of our nation through its most difficult time provides comfort and resiliency to our current leaders who tackle the most pressing issues of our day.

Have a great week everyone!  Happy New Year!



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