Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, presents a portrait of the 16th president that is instructive to education and business leaders alike. Lincoln came to the presidency with little political experience and even less support from those who ran against him. Yet he selected several of his competitors to serve in his cabinet. Through the brief period of his administration these “rivals” came to respect and even revere him, both privately and publicly. How did he accomplish holding the country together and ultimately abolishing slavery given these obstacles, and what does he teach us about leadership?
• Surround yourself with the best people, including rivals with different views on issues, who have strong egos and are willing to challenge your opinions.
Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary, had ambitions to be president. He ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination and was continually undermining the president to Lincoln’s cabinet, congress, and the rest of the country. However, as long as he was doing a good job at treasury, Lincoln respected and kept him on.
Are there strong people on the Leadership Team who can represent their opinions with logical arguments?
• Encourage debate and discussion and an airing of all perspectives on important issues.
For months Lincoln engaged his cabinet debating if and when slavery should be abolished. His cabinet represented a wide range of opinions on this topic. Ultimately he made the decision and informed his cabinet that there would no longer be debate. He then wanted suggestions about how to best implement his decision and issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The downside to encouraging debate can be that you constantly are arguing and at some point you have to cut off debate make a decision. The upside of debating is that everyone is heard.
Is debate and discussion encouraged at LT meetings? Is everyone heard? Is debate appropriately cut off when it is no longer productive? Are decisions then made that each participant can support because their opinion was heard?
• Bring in people with different temperaments.
Lincoln brought in Edwin Stanton as secretary of war. Stanton was much tougher than Lincoln, particularly with how to deal with soldiers who had run away from battle. Lincoln was much more lenient, swayed by the personal stories of these soldiers. Stanton was relentless in punishing cowardice. Together they struck a balance.
Is there a mix of temperaments ( Learning Styles, Myers-Briggs types, etc) who can offer different perspectives on the issues? Can some people see the big picture and like to talk about these issues forever, while others help focus on the details and nitty-gritty of getting the work done? Do you have people who represent this range?
• Know (or learn) how to relax to replenish your energies for the struggles that will surely come
Lincoln attended the theater about 100 times, even during the worst of the war. He also entertained people with his legendary storytelling abilities.
What do LT members (and actually all staff members) do to relax and replenish their energies? Are they encouraged to find outlets that help achieve this goal?
• Let go of wrongs done to you or mistakes of those around you.
Lincoln had the ability to be magnanimous, even toward those who had failed him or tried to undermine him (Salmon Chase). Unfortunately, because he was willing to give people second chances, he failed to act decisively sometimes. Case in point was George McClellan, who was head of the union army at the beginning of the war. According to Goodwin, McClelland was “narcissistic and insubordinate,” to the point of ignoring Lincoln’s orders. He should have been fired early on, which she says would have saved thousands of lives.
Can your LT members (including you) move on from actual or perceived hurts or failures of others to perform?
• Take time to reflect!
Lincoln and those around him had this time because they didn't have 24-7 cable news, cell phones, computers, etc. They had time to discuss the issues and reflect before making their decisions. Seward, for example, wrote daily letters to his wife sharing what had transpired that day, providing him an opportunity to reflect.
Is adequate time and opportunity provided to reflect on the discussions and debates before decisions are made?
Following is the entire Harvard Business Review interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin on this topic of Lincoln and Leadership. We hope you enjoy reading it and encourage you to read the book Team of Rivals to delve more deeply into Lincoln’s ability to lead. Maybe we can’t all be Lincolns, but perhaps we can be more Linconesque in our leadership style.