Leadership Lessons From Abraham Lincoln

By: Todd Skinner

I first learned about Team of Rivals, (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best-selling account of President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War) when President Barack Obama took office back in 2009. He said that he would be taking one book with him to the White House, apart from the Bible and that was Team of Rivals. Since I am a student of leadership it went straight to my “To Read” list. The book was long, but very interesting and I learned so many things.

Recently, I finally went to see Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, which reignited my thinking about Lincoln’s Leadership. It was riveting to watch Daniel Day Lewis (who was absolutely brilliant) portray this man leading during tough times. As I watched, my mind raced with thoughts of leadership and it inspired me to challenge my own leadership. Could I have lead as well in the face of such opposition? What areas do I need to improve in my leadership? And on and on. After the movie my wife and I discussed at great lengths the leadership lessons and so, here are three that moved us:

1.  Emotional Intelligence (EI):  

Lincoln was very self-aware and self-regulated. This quotes sums it up best – “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to speak out and remove all doubt.”  It appeared that Lincoln would have had all five of the elements of EI as described by American psychologist Daniel Goleman. In my research and learning it was apparent that he took responsibility for his errors and quickly learned from mistakes and failures. One of the qualities I love about leaders like Lincoln is their ability to keep moving forward. He didn’t let things get him down and never allowed wounds to fester. Lincoln was driven, focused and motivated. He seemed able to defer immediate results for long-term success. Someone with a high EI quotient loves a challenge and Lincoln was no exception; there were so many examples and occasions where you could see Lincoln battle with his rivals and you sensed that he welcomed the challenges. Have you ever studied and measured your Emotional Intelligence? (There are many resources on-line)

Connect with People:  

I was amazed to learn of the level that Lincoln made himself accessible to people. By wire, he communicated with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and at the White House, there was open door for citizens. People walked in to his office daily with the hope to settle their issues and listen to his wisdom and advice.
My favorite part of the movie was a scene where his team was anxiously awaiting in the telegraph room for news on the outcome of a military operation. People were pacing and stressing; anxiety filled the room. Lincoln simply leaned against a desk and told a funny story; you could see the tension in the room wane. On many occasions he used storytelling to break the ice and connect. It was an impressive skill, but as you watch you can see it was intentional. It was so powerful, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shared that William Seward (who originally was a rival) after becoming secretary of state, wrote to his wife that Lincoln was unlike anyone he’d ever known. Other members of the cabinet came to think so, too. One after another, they came to power thinking Lincoln was rather unexceptional and ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they’d ever met. Abraham Lincoln mastered the art of connecting and communicating with people; he could make the worst news or situation sound strengthening and positive. He reminded me of a Level 5 Leader from the best-selling book Good to Great.
Who do you need to connect with? What Level 5 skill do you need to develop?

3.  Always be Learning:

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin found in her research that she didn’t find him reading of Washington or Jefferson, the people you would imagine he’d be very interested in. He was more impressed by their words. It’s the documents of American history—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—that became his inspiration. He said himself that he never had a thought that didn’t come from the Declaration of Independence.

I was fascinated to learn that Lincoln studied mathematics to gain wisdom in reasoning. Another great scene in the movie is when Lincoln shares some of this wisdom with two young clerks at the telegraph office: “Euclid’s first common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” Great leaders are readers because they are curious learners. Studying outside their industries to discover new ideas and innovations. Challenge yourself to study different disciplines and industries; it is amazing how it will challenge your thinking.

Lincoln is now officially on my list of past leaders I wish I could have dinner with. My grandfather was an amazing storyteller and I loved sitting around the dinner table listening to him. I imagine a dinner with Lincoln would be one great story after another; such deep wisdom and eloquence.

You may not be faced with challenges such as leading a revolution in your country, but I hope that these three lessons from one of history’s great leaders will help you revolutionize your business, leadership and life.

Todd Skinner at 360InsightsTodd is the Chief Of Staff at 360 Incentives and believes that Lincoln would have come up with some brilliant sales incentives. Connect with Todd on Twitter at @Todd_Skinner or on LinkedIn.