The United States of America had been through some tough times. However, never has the country been so divided by disparate interests, violence, racism, personal infighting, political conflict, and cynical self-advancement as during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. And for Lincoln this was all within his unionist government, he still also had to deal with the break-away Confederate rebellion!
Amazingly, Lincoln was able to lead the Union to victory, solvency, and better days during the darkest chapter in American history. Time and time again he was able to avert disaster and hold his nation and government together. Lesser leaders probably would have presided over the final dissolution of the US. This week in my Global Leadership and Perspectives Doctor of Ministry program at George Fox Seminary we read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and The Save Time Summary of the text, both by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As I read through Lincoln’s challenges and how he ably handled them, I was able to reflect on my last two years of studying leadership. Several themes begin to emerge about leadership that are evocative in Lincoln’s leadership style. These intersect with many of the findings of leadership gurus like Kets de Vries, Collins, Li, Friedman, Morse, Rath, and Clifton. For instance, Lincoln had amazing, almost prescient emotional intelligence, and knew how to unwind and help others unwind also. He knew how to encourage and motivate people, but he also actively encouraged criticism and dissent from all sides, listening well to those whose opinions differed from his. Below are just a few of the leadership qualities clearly manifested in Abraham Lincoln that aided in the preservation of the USA.
- Lincoln built consensus. The first thing that Lincoln did during his presidency was to build his cabinet. He immediately sought out to appoint his major political rivals to important positions. Many of these men strongly disagreed with Lincoln and with each other on policy and politics, and some even had personal grudges against one another. But, Lincoln knew three important things. One, the country would need a strong show of unity and consensus to hold together and have everyone’s voice count. Two, disparate points of view would be healthy for coming to healthy and strong policy decisions. Three, you want the best, most capable people, not just the ones who agree with you.
- Lincoln actively encouraged open discussion, debate, and criticism. Several of the men Lincoln tasked with major responsibilities initially declined the position citing that they disagreed strongly with Lincoln’s positions and politics. Lincoln went out of his way to encourage these men to openly communicate with him their disagreements, notifying them that he would always listen and take into consideration their points of view. Lincoln’s office was open to hear criticism, and he never squashed it. This created trust with certain key cabinet members, but also allowed for Lincoln to always have a bigger view of the situation. It also allowed for measured and informed decisions to be made, in which most eventually came to agreement.
- Lincoln led with grace, kindness, and graciousness. Into the political cauldron of Civil War era intrigue and bickering, Lincoln gingerly stepped. Choosing a cabinet of political rivals only intensified the political stakes. Lincoln was able to diffuse much of this with his openness, but also with his incredible kindness and grace towards others. He always attempted to encourage and quickly forgive his subordinates. Moreover, he often agonized over letters and telegraphs he had to send, hoping to strike a balance between encouragement and censure. He had committed himself to never send a letter in anger. Lincoln also, whenever he felt he had been too harsh, sought out the party he offended to offer a personal apology. Even those he had to punish or remove, he often attempted to set them up in a situation where they could succeed. He was tremendously patient. For this, Lincoln engendered great trust and loyalty even from those who disagreed with him. This often helped to diffuse potentially fracturing political and policy conflicts during the intensity of the war.
- Lincoln always took responsibility. Lincoln knew the buck stopped with him. For this he often took the responsibility and the blame for the failures of his government officials. He made sure that he ultimately protected their reputation and future. The men working with Lincoln knew that he had their backs, and once again this engendered great trust and loyalty.
- Lincoln forgave generously. On several occasions subordinates apologized to Lincoln for failures and in some cases gross betrayal. Lincoln always quickly forgave and attempted to restore friendship and status to those who had wronged him. In some cases he appointed people to important positions who had clearly wronged him or looked down on him. In one case, it was revealed that his Postmaster General, Monty Blair, had written a derogatory letter about Lincoln. Blair, as an act of attrition apologized and offered to resign because of the betrayal. Lincoln simply said, “forget it and never mention or think of it again (loc 8773).” Most would have harbored grudges or resentment, but Lincoln’s policy of mercy further engendered respect, admiration, and ultimate loyalty.
- Lincoln knew when to make decisive and unilateral decisions. Despite his kindness, Lincoln was no pushover. He held strong and with integrity pushed through those things he felt strongly about. When he felt that a decision had to be made that was essential to maintaining the future of the Union, he was not afraid to act.
- Lincoln led with hope and vision. Despite the darkness and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln never wavered from the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Union for a brighter future of the nation and all mankind. He kept himself and his cabinet focused on the vision of America and the Constitution as the great hope of all humanity. After every set back (and the North experienced many) Lincoln was always there to continue to encourage his generals, his soldiers, and his cabinet with kindness and the hope of the future. He knew how to do this both explicitly and implicitly. Kearns explains: “As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an unchartered future (loc 10631).
Are you leading in a difficult and challenging situation? Do you have a divided and contentious team, church, or organization that you are in charge of? Lead like Lincoln.