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

Who Leads LIke This? Lincoln and Leadership

Written by: on June 18, 2014

Would you tolerate someone on your team with whom you had vast personality differences? Would you call people into account whom you knew had made verbal attacks on your character and abilities to lead? It seems irreconcilable differences are a good reason for so many who work together to not work together. Often when it comes to great leadership skill, the ability to execute well is most desired. But what of character? The ability to be dedicated to the job, the task, to an organizations success above personality friction is a rare quality.

I grew up in the “land of Lincoln”, Illinois. I have always had a kind of mystical awe from childhood of Abraham Lincoln. Having just finished the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, my esteem of the man has only gone up. It is not because of great deeds he had done, nor his ability to win a war and preserve the unity of the United States. Above all it is his character that stands out, his ability to lead with greatness, his magnanimity that kept him focused above personality issues. (342)

Leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s Life:

1. Lincoln looked for the common ground with those who opposed him. He tried to put himself in another person’s shoes. When attempting to appeal to slaveowners in regard to the legal status of blacks, he did not refer to some fundamental human right. He simply he pointed out the contradictions in their own laws concerning the morality of slavery.

Leadership lesson: When leading others, try to understand where they are coming from and appeal to their own convictions.

2. Lincoln held no grudges. Two rivals refused to support him for senator in Illinois even though he had the majority. Not wanting for his party to lose the election, Lincoln withdrew his name. Later when one of them was running for governor he wrote saying he did not believe charges that they did him wrong. He assumed the best of intentions.

Leadership lesson: Leaders rise above petty resentments and keep your eyes on the big picture.

3. Lincoln welcomed opinions that opposed his. As president he assembled his cabinet from formal rivals because he wanted the best people to help him lead.

Leadership lesson: Assemble the best team regardless of the personality differences.

4. When Lincoln spoke he was able to articulate the issues of the day in profound and simple terms.  When crafting his inaugural address he took time to process his thought. When writing the Gettysburg address he was able in a short speech to talk about the common history of the country and the state of where the Union stood in light of that history.

Leadership Lesson: Acquire the ability to process complex situations and communicate reality in simple terms.

5. The United States faced a difficult decision about two former Confederate senators that escaped aboard a British ship. Lincoln wanted to take a firm hand in the matter and forcibly remove them from the vessel. Secretary of State, William Seward told Lincoln that they needed to let them go. The U.S. did not want a war with England also. He wisely listened and avoided what could have been a major disaster. (pp.399-400)

Leadership Lesson: Listen well to your team and be able to adjust your thinking.

6. Though willing to listen and work with others Lincoln never wavered in his principles. Goodwin says that, an “indomitable sense of purpose sustained him.” (748) After proposing giving federal aid to states that agreed to the gradual abolition of slavery, he received severe criticism. Frederick Douglas thought him prejudiced. Horace Greeley, an influential newspaper editor, wrote a scathing letter that his stance on slavery was weak. Lincoln replied that his ultimate aim was to preserve the union, not to save slavery or annihilate it. He wanted to be rid of slavery but avoid further conflict. Goodwin states, “Experience had taught him that he must set priorities and concentrate on vital questions of the day.” (703)

Leadership Lesson: Keep the “why” of what you do predominate and stick to your principles.


My biggest take-a-way about the leadership of Abraham Lincoln is what Goodwin calls the “unselfish magnanimity”. Magnanimous literally means “great soul”. The definitions describe Lincoln well. He had a “loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly.” He seemed to “distain meanness and pettiness.” Whether one agrees with his philosophy or his tactics about war, Lincoln was able to rise above the sectarian nature of the conflict and proposed a larger picture to bring people together. In light of that, leadership must be able to what some call “tell a better story” or “define reality” for the organizations they lead.

About the Author

Fred Fay

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