History beats the drum on him as one of the most celebrated leaders of all time.
Personally his one of my favourites. His name was President Abraham Lincoln. An American politician, lawyer, husband and servant who served as the 16th President of the United States, from March 1861 until, well like most great leaders, who live under death threats, Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865.
Abraham Lincoln led the United States through its Civil War (1881-1865). I’m not American, so don’t know much about these terrible days of civil unrest, but I’ve come to understand, that he also championed one of the bloodiest war during possibly, the nation’s greatest moral, constitutional and political crisis. He did this against the 11th “Confederate States” in the South, known as the slave states. How awesome is that?!
In doing so, he preserved the Union (23 States), paved the way to the abolishment of slavery, strengthened their national government and modernised the economy. I wish I could tell you, he was my great, great, great grand… never mind!
Leaders such as Lincoln held iconic status, cherished and challenged high ideals that commanded great loyalty and respect. Their leadership legacy in our amoral world, unfortunately, has been esteemed as a worthless two cents coin, their memoir diminishes into oblivion by the years, falling short of nothing but a travesty to our future by the most unbearable, weak and irresponsible leadership.
Frankly, most people don’t care and wonder how leaders such as Lincoln deserve to be hailed. But still, what made him such an extraordinary leader? “Why should I even bother, learning about such an old dude?”
There are many important reasons why. I explore several principles from his iconic influences, and also attempt to resolve the question, “does effective modern leadership philosophy backs his methods?”
Five Leadership Lessons of Abraham Lincoln
#1. Invest More Time with the Staff and Less Behind the Desk
As President Lincoln spent more time outside the White House than in it. And it’s believed he met every single Union soldier who enlisted early in the Civil War – they saw the President in person.
Lincoln was President of 23 States but had an open-door policy.
Lincoln knew people were his best source of information. He spent 75% of the day meeting with people.
A virtue not venerated by “modern leadership,” but certainly supported by the purest form of leadership, because accessibility builds trust.
An accessible leader uses all things possible, including technology or social media to connect and network with his people.
He knows acknowledgement is validation.
He knows investing time makes a huge impact.
He knows using technology multiplies his touch.
He knows a close door policy intimidates people.
He knows an open door policy invites people.
Not all leaders are accessible leaders, but all great leaders are.
#2. Persuade Rather Than Force
Despite having the power of the presidency, Lincoln didn’t have a strong arm with people, he never used undue force. He also had many enemies but he won most of them over. How did he do it? He made them his friends. He made them like him.
Here’s Lincoln talking about his persuasive leadership methods:
“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men, if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.”
Leaders like Lincoln handle their subordinates with great respect. Lincoln didn’t give orders — he made requests.
Look at some of the letters he wrote:
To McClellan (10-13-1863): “…this letter is in no sense an order.”
To Halleck (9-19-1863): “I hope you will consider it…”
To Burnside (9-27-1863): “It was suggested to you, not ordered…”
“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Abraham Lincoln
Great leaders all portray the same leadership panache.
#3. Give Honour and Take Responsibility
Lincoln always gave credit where it was due, took responsibility when things went wrong. This approach not only confirmed his honesty, integrity, human dignity but also gave his subordinates the correct perception that they were, in many ways, doing the leading, not him.
Lincoln had no problem saying he screwed up, like in this letter to General Ulysses S. Grant:
“I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you reached the vicinity of Vicksburg… I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I that the expedition could succeed… I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”
He trusted the judgment of the people who were on the front lines. This is one of the hallmarks of good military and corporate leadership.
Leadership that works in the toughest situations is democratic in its approach and values a listening style as Lincoln demonstrated. Not worrying about who gets the credit for an idea is key to influencing people.
And the greatest minds of history agree.
As Lao Tzu said: “Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.”
#4. Encourage and Celebrate Change
What did Lincoln know about change or innovation? Well, he’s the only U.S. President ever to patent something (I’m not sure about Trump.)
“Years before assuming the presidency, Lincoln had shown his interest in innovation when, on March 10, 1849 (at age forty), he received a patent for a new method of making grounded boats more buoyant.”
What does it take to increase creativity and innovation in an organisation? It is pretty simple: reward people for trying new things and don’t punish them for failing.
Even during his most difficult times, Lincoln continued to call on his subordinates to screen new advances and implement ideas.
He realised that, as an executive leader, it was his chief responsibility to create the climate of risk-free entrepreneurship necessary to foster effective innovation.
#5. Influence People Through Storytelling
By all accounts, Lincoln was a great storyteller and leveraged this skill to win people over.
When I coach executives, a challenge that frequently emerges is the “I feel as if I hit the ceiling.” In this case, I employ a technique that quickly revives their conquering spirit. I do this simply by inviting them to tell me their STORY.
In our information-saturated age, business leaders won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories.
Once the mood is right, I ask, “so tell me how did you get to be the CEO?” Yes, a lot of patience and I mean a whole lot is needed. High achievers are usually overconfident, who just love talking about themselves. On the other extreme, there are those who “play humble pie” -you have to squeeze their story out of them.
Leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others. Their story is the fuel that keeps them going, a tool that inspires others to do the same. When I get them to reminisce on what it took for them to get to the top, suddenly, they realise they can break through any limitation.
No one really remembers facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world. Actually, they don’t stick in our minds as well as great stories do.
Lincoln understood the power of storytelling.
“Institutions that can communicate a compelling historical narrative often inspire a special kind of commitment among employees. It is this dedication that directly affects a company’s success and is critical to creating a strong corporate legacy.”
- Inspired by Eric Baker. Written for Time Magazine