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Leading a Team of Leaders (Rivals)

Written by: on June 19, 2014

Dores Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals attributes Lincoln’s defeat of his contenders for the Republican nomination to Lincoln’s being the “shrewdest and canniest of them all.”[1] In the aftermath of the general election to the presidency, Lincoln incorporated each of his rivals into his leadership cabinet, as well as opposition party leaders. Such an act, according to Goodwin, was unprecedented. As a result of the appointments, “Every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln.”[2] In the book, Godwin dimensionally expands the historical perspective of Lincoln’s presidency through the lens of those vying for the republican nomination and who came to be the inside cabinet leaders in Lincoln’s presidency.

In an NPR (National Public Radio) interview, when asked how Lincoln was able to create a cabinet coalition of such diverse and intense rivals, Goodwin responded, “So, what he essentially did is what a great politician does, which is to understand that human relationships are at the core of political success.”[3] The ability to allow the political diversity represented by his rivals allowed the leadership team assembled by Lincoln to give broad based representation for the electorate as a whole. This strategy, in historical retrospect, proved to be a key unifying factor in winning the civil war and the ultimate reunification of the country. Goodwin notes this factor; “as long as he could keep that coalition together by keeping these people inside the tent, he was actually keeping those strands in the country together as well.”

The book reveals the political cultural in the nineteenth century. Save Time Summaries notes that “Political careers served as the ultimate proof of intelligence and power in the 19th century.”[4] Politics was the vocational medium where a person could make a name for themselves and the primary arena to make significant historical achievement. In this context, Lincoln’s amazing story is how he won the nomination, the presidency and was able to assemble and lead the talented “team of rivals.”

Many insights and leadership practices can be drawn from Goodwin’s work; I will reference three: 1) his astute political acumen, 2) his willingness to accept second leading as he bided the unfolding of events and, 3) his intense devotion to doing what he considered best for the country.

Lincoln was not supposed to win the Republican nomination for president. He achieved the nomination through political intuition and strategy.[5] Goodwin notes chance and position had some measure of influence, however:

…If we consider the various resources each contender brought to the race—their range of political skills, their emotional, intellectual, and moral qualities, their rhetorical abilities, and their determination and willingness to work hard—it is clear that when opportunity beckoned, Lincoln was the most prepared to answer the call. His nomination, finally, was the result of his character and his life experiences—these separated him from his rivals and provided him with advantages unrecognizable at the time.[6]

Lincoln was able to win by accepting his position and not putting his name out to early. As is true in today’s politics, there is a hazard in being an early front-runner. Goodwin notes that Lincoln was “comparatively unknown” and was willing to position himself as an alternative, “to hold back as long as possible and to ‘give no offense to others—leave them in a mood to come to us, if they are compelled to give up their first love.’”[7]  The wiliness on Lincoln’s part to listen, to linger before making decisions and to elicit responses through personal invitation characterized both the election campaign and his presidential leadership.

One of the great examples of Lincoln’s desire to make decisions that benefited the country aboe personal gain or notoriety is his appointment of Salmon P. Chase, his chief contentious rival, as Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court. Goodwin details the political maneuvering for this position in great detail.[8] Chase was antagonistic throughout Lincoln’s election and presidency. Despite this, Lincoln refused to allow personal differences or political pressure to deter him from what he felt was the best appointment – Salmon Chase – as Chief Justice. Goodwin notes Lincoln’s comment when criticized for the appointment; “[He] ‘would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,’ but the decision was right for the country.”[9]

In the essay, “What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?,” Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana exam characteristics and functions of leadership teams composed of strong leaders.[10] It is interesting to compare the author’s research on management and activist leadership teams to Lincoln’s team of rivals. “A leadership team” as define by Nohria and Khurana, “is a group of individuals, each of whom has personal responsibility for leading some part of an organization, who are interdependent for the purpose of providing overall leadership to a larger enterprise.”[11] They define five key functions that compose a leader’s ability to lead leaders – each of the functions are applicable to Lincoln’s leadership role.

Nohria and Khurana conclude with an ironic conclusion.  They note that a shared, cooperative and responsive leadership team “is especially unlikely to emerge spontaneously in teams that are composed of people who themselves have extensive experience and expertise as leaders.”[12] The challenge for Lincoln was to subjugate the personal ambitions and demanding leadership characteristics of his “rivals” to allow the combined expertise to benefit the good of the country.  In addition, Lincoln’s leadership role was encumbered with the fact that each rival believed Lincoln should not have won and they should, instead, should be president. Lincoln’s leadership exemplified the ability to bring out the best in his rivals, allowing their expertise to create a diverse and influential leadership team. In the process, Lincoln was able to maintain the position “of undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet”[13] In many issues, such as the eventual emancipation proclamation, Lincoln made the decision. His position, as Goodwin notes, “I want to tell you what I’ve decided, and I will listen to your comments … [but] he finally had to decide for himself what he was going to do and then just tell the Cabinet in a very forceful way: This is what I’m going to do.”[14]


[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (New Yory: Simon & Schuster, 2005), xvi.

[2] Ibid,.

[3] Doris Kerns Goodwin, interview by Terry Gross, NPR Radio, Nov. 15, 2012, transcript, Fresh Air (NPR).

[4] Save Time Summaries, Summary: Team of Rivals Lincoln  (Las Vegas, NV: Save Time Summaries, 2012), 11.

[5] Goodwin, Team…, 254

[6] Ibid.

[7] Goodwin, Team…” 255.

[8] Ibid., 676-681.

[9] Ibid., 680.

[10] Ruth Wageman and J. Richard Hackman, “What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?” eds. Nitin Nohra & Rakesh Khurana, Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), Kindle, 5833-6197.

[11].Ibid., 5857.

[12] Ibid., 6147

[13] Goodwin, Team…,xvi.

[14] Goodwin, “Interview…”

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