Lessons from Lincoln


It may not be apt to compare our current turbulence, to the enormous challenges faced by Abraham Lincoln, in the transformation of America.  However, there is indeed much to learn from his extraordinarily courageous leadership as we attempt to transform our own leadership capabilities in the uncertain world in which we live.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book “Leadership in Turbulent Times”, shares the stories of four great US Presidents, who led their country though extremely turbulent times.

In a chapter on Abraham Lincoln, she cites 17 gems of wisdom of leadership in challenging times:

  1. Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction
  2. Gather firsthand information, ask questions
  3. Find time and space in which to think
  4. Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power
  5. Anticipate contending viewpoints
  6. Assume full responsibility for pivotal decisions
  7. Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team
  8. Refuse to let past resentments fester. Transcend personal vendettas
  9. Set a standard of personal respect and dignity. Control anger
  10. Shield colleagues from blame
  11. Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse
  12. Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy
  13. Keep your word
  14. Know when to hold back, when to move forward
  15. Combine transactional and transformational leadership
  16. Be accessible, easy to approach
  17. Put ambition for the collective above self-interest.

Whilst most of these appear simple and obvious, it seems that many people in positions of power, seem to lose sight of these basic principles in challenging times.

While I believe each of these holds significant value for leaders in all spheres of life, there are three that particularly resonate with Lead with Humanity’s work with aspiring leaders.

Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.

Why is it so difficult for people in positions of power to admit mistakes from the past and to apologise for inappropriate actions or behaviour.  And it seems even more difficult for so many people in authority to admit that they are uncertain of what to do. Vulnerability is not sign of weakness. Weakness is when we pigheadedly hold onto decision that everyone knows are incorrect. Courageous leaders show authenticity and strength in their vulnerability.  They learn from mistakes and from failures.  They have the courage to try something different.

Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.

Accolades are wonderful to receive but cunningly intoxicating. When egos are flattered too often, there is an all too common tendency to slide into a state of invincibility, all knowing and arrogant. Hubris sets in. The dark shadow of overwhelming sense of self-confidence, is that it simultaneously creates a fragility which is brittle and defensive when faced with criticism or abuse and when best intentions are ridiculed by people who ‘just don’t get it’. On the other side of the coin, great leaders challenge the boundaries of the timid. Bold leadership will always create strong supporters and vehement detractors.

Put ambition for the collective above self-interest.

Leadership is about the collective, not the individual. It is about galvanizing a common purpose and building a shared agenda. The moment my personal agenda becomes the agenda – we are motivated by self-interest. Notwithstanding the fact that my agenda may be what is best for the collective, we are at risk of our leadership style sliding into parenting or patronage. Our influence diminishes, buy-in becomes harder to get and our desire to empower team members flies out the window. Compassionate leaders care about the collective.

Lincoln said,

“Nearly all men can stand in adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

I believe one of humanity’s greatest shortcomings in recent history is the abuse of the power given to so many of our so-called leaders. The world is in desperate need of leaders with strong and purpose-driven characters.  Leaders who are bold and courageous.  Leaders like Lincoln.

You can read a great review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, here.

And you can purchase it here.