Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lincoln’s Team of Rivals

Written by: on January 28, 2021

Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States in part because the election of 1860 was a four-man race. With the Democrats divided over Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, and a Constitutional Union Party candidate on a ballot, the Republican Lincoln was able to carry the northern states and receive the most votes in the Electoral College. It can assumed that the country’s division was one reason Lincoln was able to prevail.

Tensions over the issue of slavery had reached a boiling point and by the end of the year, southern states began to secede from the Union. Republicans were also not of one mind over the issues of slavery and how best to preserve the Union. However, rather than surround himself with loyalists and acolytes, Lincoln assembled a Cabinet that would include several of his political rivals, including William Seward and Salmon Chase. From the moment of his nomination, Lincoln sought unity as best as he could,[1] even though by the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven southern states had begun the process to form a new government and Republicans were increasing fracturing.[2]

Lincoln was himself strategic and thoughtful, but he recognized that the task of leadership was too great for one person. His foundational solution in preparing for the challenges awaiting him was in the team he installed. “Lincoln created a team of independent, strong-minded men,[3] all of whom were more experienced in public life, better educated, and more celebrated than he.”[4]

Simon Walker calls this the “RSC” or “Foundational Strategy.” “When a leader employs the RSC Foundational strategy, she is laying out the backstage area of her theatre of operations: setting in place the agreements, boundaries, rules, and expectations.”[5] Lincoln’s process was to give room for the smart, passionate, capable leaders around him to act from their strengths, while always remembering his own unique role as the team’s leader.

What makes a person able to do this? Doris Kearns Goodwin asks and answers the question. “How had Lincoln been able to lead these inordinately prideful, ambitious, quarrelsome, jealous, supremely gifted men? … The best answer can be found in what we identify today as Lincoln’s emotional intelligence: his empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline, and generosity of spirit.”[6] Edwin Friedman wrote, “it is ultimately the nature of (a leader’s) presence that is the source of their real strength.”[7]

Lincoln was not perfect, nor did he deal with every issue perfectly, but he is admired as a unique kind of leader in part because of how he could surround himself with rivals for the sake of doing his best work. The relationships he forged, even with people who opposed him and his ability to remain focused on the larger goals of his work were born largely from what Friedman would call his “self-differentiation,” and what Walker could describe as his “backstage work.” He is described by Goodwin as a “transformational leader,” one who “inspires followers to identify with something larger than themselves.”[8]

This is hopeful news today because it means that the solutions to the challenges we face need not wait for the smartest or most skilled leaders to emerge. Instead, the solutions can be found when good and faithful people come together, assured in themselves but able to recognize the potential contributions of others. When leaders spend as at least as much time in the foundational or background work as they do seeking the spotlight, teams of rivals can become bands of brothers and sisters for the sake of the greater causes.

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 122.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Goodwin references men here only because the scores of capable women who could have been as or more effective were largely left out of public leadership roles in this era.

[4] Goodwin, 212.

[5] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 198.

[6] Goodwin, 222.

[7] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 14.

[8] Goodwin, 235.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “Lincoln’s Team of Rivals”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    Well done at integrating so many leadership perspectives into one post! Gold star for you, John!

    “When leaders spend as at least as much time in the foundational or background work as they do seeking the spotlight, teams of rivals can become bands of brothers and sisters for the sake of the greater causes.” What did doing the background work look like for Lincoln? What does that look like for you?

    • John McLarty says:

      From everything I’ve read, Lincoln tried really hard to maintain relationships with people, even when they defeated or humiliated him. There was something about him that could put those experiences into a file so that he could stay open to learning without holding a grudge. This was one key to his nomination in 1860. Seward and Chase were much more “presidential” in many ways, but they had both made and kept enemies on their paths to the top. Enemies determined enough to look for retribution. Lincoln seemed to have this quality that endeared him to people, even those who were opposed to him.

      What does that look like for me? Much harder question! I try to stay humble, open, and in relationship with people, but I feel that it’s sometimes perceived as disingenuous or just more work than I really care to put in! But the backstage work continues to be critical and it’s work that one can really only do on their own. I try to be intentional about that.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    I appreciate that you pointed out Lincolns desire to not fill his Cabinet with yes men. Very few leaders intentionally bring individuals that come from opposite perspectives that will openly disagree around them. Though it is nice to have a hand picked team of like minded people I have found it much more productive to have people that buy into the vision but not agree on the process. I think I shared in one of my earlier posts that on every project I always invited a few nay sayers. This wasn’t always fun but it did insure that we looked at every possibility. In church leadership I do believe that common theologies and doctrinal beliefs are important but, I would like to see a church staffed with free thinkers willing to share there opinions within the context of church leadership. I believe there is a way to show unity in leadership and still have a healthy differing of perspective. Whats your take on this?

    • John McLarty says:

      Goodwin has a line in her book about how Lincoln was able to foster a team of ideologically diverse people whose love for country was their north star. Despite their personal disagreements, this was what held them together. Lincoln respected each of their perspective and worked hard on his relationships with each one. At the end of the day, they knew they were allowed to be as disagreeable as they felt they needed to be, provided that their public “front” was united.

      In the church, there’s a spiritual component at work that I try to pay attention to. There are hard-nosed folks whose approach makes things challenging, but because I know their heart and their commitment, I’m happy to have them in places of leadership because I trust we’re all working for the same things. There are others who lack the spiritual maturity or who don’t share the same commitment to the church or who only want a leadership role for the sake of power. I do not invite these folks on the team. It’s one thing to have a team of “rivals” who can still see and strive for a greater purpose. It’s another thing entirely to invite subversive forces to the table who cannot or will not work with others. I invite folks like that to deeper discipleship practices if they are truly interested in being asked to serve in a place of leadership. Some do, some don’t.

  3. Jer Swigart says:

    Can you imagine the level of humility needed in order to not feel threatened by those on his team? With a life marked by so much failure, it’s remarkable that the failure generated within Lincoln humility rather than fragility. Oh to read about that journey! That’s a book worth writing and reading.

    • John McLarty says:

      That would be fascinating. Where did Lincoln get that ability? Was he born with it? Did someone teach this to him? In many ways, Lincoln personifies “antifragile.” Taleb really only describes it and tells readers to be that way. There aren’t really “six steps to antifragility.” But I guess the next best thing is to read and watch and learn and discover that it can be done. Lincoln was not superhuman and he had his own burdens to bear. But the qualities of differentiation, self-confidence with humility, and clarity of purpose certainly enabled him to lead quite differently than others.

  4. Dylan Branson says:

    John, in your experience of pastoring, how have you created or facilitated your own “team of rivals”? When you’ve hired new staff or worked with volunteers, what are some of the things that you’ve looked for in your leadership teams?

    • John McLarty says:

      My response to Greg answers some of this. For me, it’s really about trying to get a sense of a person’s heart. If I think they are as committed to the goal as I am, if they demonstrate an appropriate level of maturity in their personal, professional, and spiritual practices, and if I sense a team-oriented, servant-leader, I find we can usually work together, even if we have different ways of seeing and solving problems.

      It took me a long time to recognize that people who ask tough questions and seem anti-everything were not necessarily my enemies. In fact, many of these folks have kept me from leading the church over the cliff many times! And as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to see how different personality types actually work well together.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    I’m grateful you reminded me of one of Walker’s main points – having the back of the stage match the front. Perhaps it’s the combination of social media, microwaves, and self-publishing that diminishes the apparent necessary hard work of character building and growing in virtue.

    • John McLarty says:

      We certainly don’t get the same kind of encouragement or instant gratification in the backstage as we do in the spotlight. Maybe that’s why it seems better out front. But the deeper preparation that happens in back does make us more ready and more effective.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    This was so neat. I wanted to understand more about “RSC” so I plugged that in, along with “foundational strategy” and “Simon Walker”. John, your BlogPost was the first up on Google!

    Dynamite reasoning through Simon Walker and Edwin Friedman. Abraham was the kind of man, seemingly a kind man by nature, undefended in way that encouraged others to be themselves, naturally undefended, around.

    Do you think they had fun together? I wonder that, sometimes, about Jesus and his ‘chosen’ team. What was the lightness in their movement, what did the space look like where they lived into their truest selves together?

    It seems that Abraham, lived into who he was made to be, perhaps closer to ‘entirely’ for his role than others have? It can be felt when there’s a struggle in a leader that way. That is, when strategy needs to be pushed somehow or a tension is unloaded for the sake of strategy or followers/employees/constituents feel commodified as ‘means to an end’.

    Enduring things happen naturally 🙂 appealing to the real, it seems. So often, such leaders, inclined to lead in more beautiful ways that have to do with true integrity (to the cause), end up being killed.

    Can you find a bit of a connection in Abraham and his team to Jesus and his Team?

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