Team of Rivals is an unparalleled and in-depth look at the circumstances and people of Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for the Presidency, the Civil War and his eventual assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Having grown up in the United States school system I felt that I knew Lincoln’s story well enough. Those illusions were destroyed by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page book. It’s girth even made my iPad feel heavier while reading it.
In terms of leadership there are a couple of points that were brought home to me. First, Lincoln didn’t seek to surround himself with friends and people who would tell him what he already knew. He didn’t employ ‘yes’ men, but men with diverse thoughts who weren’t afraid to disagree with a President. This greatly helped him as he was making tough decisions in the midst of the Civil War. In my own everyday life I tend to want to surround myself with people who think like me. As I’ve thought about that tendency, I think there are a few reasons why it exists: 1. I hate being wrong. This is as much a pride issue as anything. I want others to think the best of me and I think I might subconsciously equate being wrong with being inadequate. 2. It takes lot’s of time and energy to develop consensus and move forward. It’s much cleaner and easier to surround yourself with similarly minded people, though I think the negatives of this easily outweigh these seemingly positive attributes. 3. I think this is a trend in the culture at large. Just look at our media. If you’re left leaning you can watch MSNBC. If you’re right leaning you can watch Fox news. You can easily find websites that tailor to your exact thinking. There are groups and clubs that draw people of the same mentality. It’s as if you can go through life and never hear anyone give a thoughtful reason about why they think differently than you. Unfortunately, I rarely sit down and listen to someone I know I’m going to disagree with. More often that not, it just elevates my blood pressure.
The second principal brought home is the power of words. For example, at Gettysburg during the Civil War Edward Everett gets up before President Lincoln and delivers a two-hour speech that must have seemed like it took four hours. Afterwards, Lincoln steps up and gives one of the most powerful and moving speeches in American history. Two minutes after he started he sits down. Two hours as opposed to two minutes. Before Team of Rivals I didn’t even know that someone spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg! The Gettysburg Address certainly wasn’t the only evidence of the power of Lincoln’s words, they were something he routinely used to bring people together and to create a common consciousness where one hadn’t existed. I think in my writing and rhetoric I’m more like Edward Everett that Lincoln. Fortunately though, I do think that because of the constant writing and thinking of my D.Min program that both have become sharper, but admittedly are still a fry cry from where they should be.
So in light of Lincoln, do you surround yourself with people who give different opinions? And, do you use the written and spoken word to lead?