abraham lincoln leadership style

Rate your Leadership against Lincoln

  1. February 9th, 2022  | 

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Published in Leadership

This material was first published in February 2013. A companion blog—“The 6 Warning Signs of Bad Management”—was published in February 2020. Due to popular response, this material has been edited and is being reposted along with a new 10-question assessment you can access for free to compare your leadership style to one of history’s greatest leaders.

Abraham Lincoln was born 213 years ago this month on February 12, 1809.

Americans celebrate Presidents Day in honor of Lincoln and George Washington, born February 22, 1732.

While both Lincoln and Washington are at the top of most Americans’ list of great leaders, Lincoln ranks consistently as the best U.S. president for his leadership in guiding his country through a constitutional, military and moral crisis, preserving the Union, ending slavery, and promoting economic and financial modernization.

Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” has helped further acquaint modern audiences with the remarkable leadership qualities of America’s 16th president.

Lincoln’s accomplishments were considerable in just over four years on the job.  He was assassinated April 15, 1865, four months after being re-elected to a second term and just six days after the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox to end the Civil War.

It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

Abraham Lincoln came from a very poor family and was a self-educated country lawyer.

These humble origins likely kept him grounded and explain his negative view toward position, titles and bloodlines. He was a master at deflating the pompous.

Lincoln was a one-term member of the House of Representatives but failed twice in his bids to become a Senator. This perseverance served him well as he had to contend with men in his own cabinet who wanted his position and actively conspired against him.

Lincoln left a rich legacy, and the leadership lessons of how he lived his life provide modern-day leaders with a template to guide their own behavior as they confront today’s challenges.

When it comes to Lincoln’s style of leading, there are plenty of lessons to choose from. Let’s focus on five:

  1. Know what you stand for.  Lincoln spoke against slavery despite warnings that doing so was political suicide. At a time when the nation was divided on the issue of slavery, Lincoln took the unpopular position that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Friends urged Lincoln not to take a position on this issue but instead allow events to work themselves out. Lincoln, however, did not shirk his responsibility to lead. “The time has come,” he said, “when these sentiments should be uttered, and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked with the truth.  If I had to draw a pen across my record and erase my whole life from sight, and I had one poor gift or choice left as to what I should save from the wreck, I should choose that speech and leave it to the world unerased.”

Lesson: The truth is non-negotiable. 

Implications for leaders:

  • Ensure that your personal values are crystal clear
  • Understand what you are willing to negotiate and what’s non-negotiable
  • Use your values – personal and organizational – as a filter for decision-making
  1. Value diverse opinions.  Lincoln assembled a team of rivals – men who wanted to be president and who, after being named to his cabinet, continued to covet his job and often worked at cross-purposes to undermine their boss.  Yet Lincoln brought these men onto his team because he believed the country’s needs demanded the best talent to address the crisis created by the slavery issue that ignited the Civil War.

Lesson: Leverage talent in all its forms wherever you find it.

Implications for leaders:

  • You don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room (it’s okay to ask for help)
  • Encourage, embrace and tap into your talent – wherever you find it
  • Share the credit and shoulder the blame (we will win or lose together)
  1. Think things through. Though self-educated, Lincoln was a voracious reader and lifetime learner.  His thinking was shaped by his character, his grasp of human nature and his commonsense approach that helped him arrive at pragmatic decisions that were aligned with his personal values.

Lesson: Consider issues from all sides.

Implications for leaders:

  • Be sure you’re drilling down to the root cause of an issue
  • Understand all of your options and the consequences of each
  • Make the best decision for the long term, not necessarily what’s most expedient
  1. Communicate clearly, calmly and often.  Despite relentless and often conflicting pressure from all sides as a result of adverse conditions throughout his presidency, Lincoln remained calm, focused and unwavering in his vision, which he punctuated with humor to make simple points, win negotiations and lift spirits among his cabinet members, his army generals, the public…and even himself. Often, Lincoln would respond to a tense situation by saying, “That reminds me of a story.” When Lincoln prefaced a discussion of the draft Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud from a favorite humorist, many in his cabinet disapproved.  “Gentlemen,” said Lincoln, “why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.” 

Lesson: Keep it simple…and humor helps.

Implications for leaders:

  • It’s hard to over-communicate: About the time you’re sick of saying it, everyone else is starting to get it
  • Remember your audience and tailor your message accordingly
  • Humor is the great equalizer
  1. Learn from your mistakes. Lincoln was sure of himself. He harbored few insecurities and was not obsessed with power or position, which enabled him to admit errors freely, shoulder blame, learn from past mistakes and move forward. 

Lesson: It’s usually not the mistake that matters; it’s how we respond to the mistake that matters.

Implications for leaders:

  • Being vulnerable is the sign of a strong leader, not a weak one
  • If you and your team are not making a few mistakes, then you’re probably not trying hard enough
  • Mistakes will happen; just don’t make the same big mistake twice

As we honor Abraham Lincoln on Presidents Day, take a moment to consider these five leadership lessons. 

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

See how your style of leadership compares to that of America’s greatest president.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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