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, 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.
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, all of whom were more experienced in public life, better educated, and more celebrated than he.”
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.” 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.” Edwin Friedman wrote, “it is ultimately the nature of (a leader’s) presence that is the source of their real strength.”
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.”
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.
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 122.
 Ibid, 212.
 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.
 Goodwin, 212.
 Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 198.
 Goodwin, 222.
 Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 14.
 Goodwin, 235.