I’m a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. Needless to say, I’ve seen the movie “Lincoln” with Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, but that’s not what I want to talk about. The movie reminded me of a book I recently read about the President, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Although the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book holds a prominent place on my bookshelf and is a book about Abraham Lincoln’s genius I’d highly recommend, my intent is not to do a book review either. I would like to share three leadership traits I learned from arguably one of the greatest men to ever live in the White House:
1. Savvy leaders surround themselves with smart people, particularly those who don’t always agree with them: It was fascinating to read of how President Lincoln chose he cabinet. He was not expected to be the Republican nominee at the convention. He was pretty much everyone’s second choice in a primary campaign that was particularly divisive. After he was elected, he chose for his cabinet the very men who had months before been his bitter rivals. His cabinet even included the GOP’s opposition. I think what amazes me most about the Lincoln White House is that before the end, some of his bitterest rivals were his dearest of friends. It was by no means an easy struggle, but these men were able to put their ideological differences aside and work together. There were times when it was painful. It was after all, one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history. Lincoln wasn’t looking for a Cabinet of “yes men.” He wanted to leverage their collective intelligence and experience to help him lead the country.
2. It’s the divergence of opinions that make for smart decisions, not universal agreement among the executive team: As you would expect, there were a lot of very strong opinions among that group. There weren’t too many easy decisions made during the Civil War, and Lincoln trusted his Cabinet to give him their honest feedback so he could then make the decision—which he did.
3. Taking responsibility for your actions is the mark of a great leader: Lincoln made it a point to take responsibility for his decisions, even his unpopular decisions. I read of more than one occasion when someone on the cabinet was taking heat in the press for something he had initiated, and he regularly stepped forward to take the heat himself. Throwing someone under the bus for a bad decision simply wasn’t an option. Over the years I’ve worked for people like that, but they have certainly been in the minority.
William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was one of his bitterest rivals who later became one of his dearest friends. In fact, he survived an assassination attempt on his own life the night the President was murdered. John Hay observed, “The history of governments, affords few instances of an official connection hallowed by friendship so absolute and sincere as that which was snatched away from these two magnanimous spirits.” He continued, “From the beginning of the Administration to that dark and terrible hour when both were struck down by the hand of murderous treason, there was no shadow of jealousy or doubt ever disturbed their mutual confidence and regard.”
There’s a lot we can learn from the leadership acumen of President Abraham Lincoln.