What Modern Leaders can Learn from Lincoln

Reminders on Humility, Communication, and Generosity from the 16th President

The are some people that seem built for a specific purpose. They are at the right place, at the right time, with the right tools and team at their disposal. Seemingly, everything in their life has been leading up to this moment.

I recently finished reading Team of Rivals, by Dorris Goodwin, and I was struck by how perfect Abraham Lincoln fit the demands of the time. In a moment with such tension, divisiveness, chaos, and bloodshed, he exemplified the calm, humble leader with a genuine love for his fellow Americans we revere.

Every person that worked against and alongside him initially doubted that this simple backwoods lawyer had the leadership skills and political savviness to be the President. Time and again, Lincoln was underestimated. Despite this, he routinely and thoroughly impressed his allies and colleagues with his sheer political brilliance, his ability to manage rival factions and build broad coalitions, and his inspiring leadership. He didn’t set out to convince them of his ability; he just led, and earned the trust of everyone around him. Lincoln was truly beloved — the country, including the South, mourned for his loss when he was assassinated.

“There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.” — Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War

However, as I reflected on this historical leader at such an extraordinary time, I was struck by the timelessness of Lincoln’s leadership. Today, with our political and civic leadership in massive turmoil, I cannot help but wonder, “What would Lincoln do?” How would this leader, equal parts ambitious and magnanimous, encourage us to treat our fellow Americans?

At the conclusion of this fantastic biography, I knew I would want to jot down some notes for myself — some qualities, characteristics, and behaviors that I would want to emulate. I’ve shared them below for reference and discussion, with the hope that we can all remind ourselves to be better as individuals, and also hold our colleagues and elected officials to the same high standard.

Leadership Lessons from Honest Abe Lincoln

  • Treat everyone with kindness, respect, and dignity. Everyone that came to greet him, from capable politicians, to country folk, to foreign dignitaries, to military commanders all respected Lincoln because he proved to be extremely intelligent and still showed genuine interest and compassion for them. Frederick Douglas shifted from Lincoln critic to Lincoln supporter just based off their first interaction, where Abe treated him with an uncommon level of respect. Politicians repeatedly commented on how gentle he was, despite needing to push for specific policies or strategies. Lincoln first won over the hearts of others because of how he treated them, and over time they came to appreciate his strategic skills as sharp and adept.
Lincoln and Douglas developed deep mutual respect over several years of political back-and-forth
  • Communication is a massively underrated component of leadership. Lincoln knew how to communicate ideas in simple, plain-spoken logic, sometimes using an analogy to make a clear point. His precision at shifting public opinion gradually with his timed use of open letters, speeches, and balanced perspective, would continuously bring radicals back to center. Importantly, Honest Abe was well-named because he was always up-front with others, even to his own detriment, which enabled him to build deep trust with others very quickly. He rarely took out his irritation or anger on colleagues or critics — Lincoln often wrote letters out of frustration, but then never sent them. He knew that this would help him process and soften the blow for whatever letter he did send (see below on ego).
  • Storytelling can be a powerful tool. Lincoln was known for his quick wit and endless stories. He always had an anecdote or a joke at the ready, often with the added bonus of both easing tension and providing a moral guidance. He built stories and analogies into his speeches and letters, which enabled him to simplify complex arguments and thus influence others. More importantly, his communication style inspired. He asked, rather than demanded, that others understand his logic, and worked until they came along to his perspective. When they did not, or perhaps they made a mistake, he forgave them quickly rather than humiliate them.
  • Don’t let ego get in the way; turn rivals into allies. Lincoln won the Republican nomination and later the Presidency as a two-time failed Senator, beating out two Senators and Governors, and one elder statesman. He then promptly named each to his most important cabinet positions. He later named Edwin Stanton as his Secretary of War, despite the fact that Stanton had snubbed him during a trial in the 1830s. Lincoln filled out the rest of his cabinet with a blend of conservatives and liberals, and ensured that all parts of the country was represented. He put aside the brutal attacks and hostilities of partisan debates in favor of a broad coalition that held together for the common good. Lincoln would not allow himself to be easily offended or hold a grudge, even when others around him could not fathom why. He later named Salmon Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, despite Chase’s attempt to usurp him from the Presidency in 1864. Barack Obama famously appointed Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State in 2009, drawing on Lincoln’s example.
“We needed the strongest men in the party. I looked and concluded these were the very strongest men. Then I have no right to deprive the country of their services…” — Lincoln on selecting political rivals for cabinet positions
  • Some change must be radical and fast; other changes must be slow and steady. As disruptors, we often want to implement fast, sweeping improvements (“fail fast and break things”) and balk at methodical, slow big companies and governments. Lincoln was willing to do both, depending on the situation. He started planning the majority of his Cabinet within days of winning the Presidential Election; some of those men were his former opponents in the Republican primaries. For other changes, Lincoln was more deliberate in his pace. He was criticized heavily for not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation earlier (even by 6 months) until he perceived a subtle shift in public opinion. Doing so earlier may have cost him support from one faction or another, thus losing out on the overarching mission: save the Union. He let others catch up with his foregone conclusion. The more radical the change, the more careful a leader must be… but they must also know when to move quickly and strike.
  • Leaders must be amongst their troops and constituents. Abraham Lincoln held open receptions at the White House every week, shaking thousands of peoples’ hands for years. He heard their praise and complaints while his home and office was trashed, and loved the close connection it gave him with the populace. He visited the troops in the field, especially after difficult losses, so he could understand their condition and raise their spirits. During one battle, Lincoln was so close to the fighting that bullets whizzed by him (hitting a nearby surgeon instead) — survivors remember seeing his tall, lanky figure from the battlefield. He genuinely cared about these people, and this proximity enabled Lincoln to garner the support of the people who he served and commanded- the electorate and the army. During his re-election campaign of 1864, Lincoln won both the popular vote and the military vote over the former #1 General, George B. McClellan.
  • Hard work pays off. Abraham Lincoln knew, from the time he was a boy, that he wanted to achieve greatness; at points, he was even concerned that there would not be enough achievement to be had, as the Founding Fathers had “claimed” it all. Despite his lack of formal education and poor upbringing, Lincoln worked like few others — both leading up to the Presidency, and during. He self-studied classics, math, and law on his own for years. Lincoln managed his own political campaigns, orchestrating detailed instructions to his field staff, rather than outsourcing this duty to a political boss. When the fate of the nation was in jeopardy, Lincoln rose to the challenge, working around the clock for years to hold the Union together during the Civil War. His passion for the American democracy and his desire to serve the country enabled him to perform at extraordinary levels.
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed.” — Abraham Lincoln, age 23
  • Find ways to blow off steam. Leadership is naturally a high-stress job. It demands facing the most difficult problems, and the most complex situations, and often with the most difficult and demanding people. Living with a constant drip of anxiety can take a toll on one’s health without proper maintenance and release. Lincoln often took carriage and horseback rides around Washington, read books and poetry with others, told stories, and attended the theatre. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, was known to consider such activities as frivolous, and ended up overworking himself to exhaustion numerous times throughout the war.
  • Leaders empower others, distribute credit, and accept blame. Whenever something positive happened, Lincoln heaped praise on his Cabinet or Generals. Whenever a failure occurred, Lincoln took it as his personal responsibility, sometimes going as far as to write a public letter that took full responsibility for others’ failures. Lincoln knew where he was adept and where he was weak; when he pushed for certain policies or actions, he usually requested, rather than demanded. Many times, another political rival would ask for the appointment or termination of another’s subordinates; Lincoln almost always refused, preferring to empower each leader to fill out their own teams. Only on rare occasions did he override, and when he did, his team knew it was a final decision because he only used it sparingly.
“I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you reached the vicinity of Vicksburg… I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I that the expedition could succeed… I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.” — Lincoln to General Ulysses S. Grant

Abraham Lincoln’s legacy created a shining standard of leadership, and his story is a reflection of the good in both people and the United States. My hope is that we can remember him not just for his accomplishments — winning the Civil War and thereby holding the Union together, and passing the 13th Amendment — but also for how he treated others. His leadership was one of compassion for others. His humble roots engrained a deep appreciation for hard work, generosity, and kindness.

Leaders in all arenas, from modern politics to fledgling startups, can and should borrow from Lincoln’s servant leadership and desire to make a lasting mark on America. He devoted himself to the Union, and carried out his duties with calculated strategy. Most importantly, Lincoln showed that leadership is as much an emotional act of listening and empathizing as it is a tactical and strategic battle.

Today, in 2019, we could use a bit more empathy.

“He was really not a great general like Napolean or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character…. Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world.” — Leo Tolstoy, 1908