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7 Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln: Learning from the Leadership Wisdom of the Great Emancipator
By | 02/11/2012 3:13PM | LEADERSHIP LESSONS

What leadership lessons can we learn from one of the great legends of leadership, a man who was born nearly 200 years ago?

Since his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln has grown to mythical proportions. Lincoln has been memorialized throughout the years and across the land. After Lincoln, we have named everything from theatres and museums to schools and colleges; from streets, airports and parks to counties, cities and towns; from statues and monuments to the penny and the five-dollar-bill; from Mount Rushmore to the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln is repeatedly remembered as one of America’s greatest leaders and he is always remembered as a hero among American presidents. Rather than receding into the pages of the past; Lincoln’s example as a leader continues to stand strong. But what is it that makes the leadership of Lincoln relevant to leader’s today? […]

First, scholars to this day unfailingly rank Lincoln as one of the top 3 greatest American presidents (usually first). So even as the presidency and the nation and the times have changed; historians, political scientists, scholars of law and leadership continue to place Lincoln on top. What we value most in our leaders tends to endure.

Second, Lincoln was able to preserve the Union and end slavery, not in the face of a stubborn, self-seeking, self-consumed, corporate-controlled Congress (like we have today), but, rather, in the midst of a civil war—a war that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans; a battle for the soul of America that would claim Lincoln’s life as well. So, given the great partisan divisions in Washington or even the intense economic divide, I think there is much to learn from the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

Third, Lincoln was a self-made man. While many of the world’s great leaders were born into positions of power and privilege, Lincoln had no such advantages. He was born in a one-room log cabin. He had less than a year of formal education. His father lost all of their property when Lincoln was five. His mother died when he was nine. He failed in business. He lost his first true love when he was 25 (not to another man—she died). He suffered from depression. His wife was mentally unstable—and abusive. He endured several electoral defeats. And yet through it all he rose to become President of the United States. In some ways, Lincoln is the very embodiment of the American dream.

“That some achieve great success,” Lincoln said, “is proof to all that others can achieve it as well.” But how did Lincoln achieve such great success? Of the nearly two dozen lessons recent research reveals, there are seven key leadership lessons that we can learn from Lincoln:

Bridle Your Ambition

The first leadership lesson we can learn from Lincoln is the importance of keeping our ambition in check. People are often surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln was a man of unquenchable ambition. One biographer wrote that “No man could have loved fame more than Abraham Lincoln.”1 Another said that Lincoln was “the most ambitious man in the world.”2 Lincoln himself said that he wanted to be great and that he wanted to be remembered for doing something great.

But what was different about Lincoln was that he was the master of his ambition, not the reverse. Ambition is what MLK referred to as the Drum Major Instinct and he knew it could be good. Ambition is like a wild horse. It can be a powerful source of the leader’s energy, strength and courage. And like a wild horse, ambition must be fed and nurtured. But it is not until a horse is bridled, saddled and trained that it can become a champion.

Lincoln had the character and humility to keep his ambition in check and on the right track. Lincoln said, “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.” Lincoln kept his ambition focused on serving the people and winning their esteem.

Character as Destiny

Abraham Lincoln was an unusually honest and genuine man of integrity that he was trusted by everyone who knew him—and that was key. From a young age, Lincoln possessed a well-developed conscience and the courage to do the right thing in the moment of truth.

What is interesting, however, is that in his near-desperate attempt to rise out of the poverty of his youth, it was his strong moral character and his reputation for fairness and honesty that helped him to make a name for himself and eventually win a seat in the Illinois State Legislature. “Honest Abe” they called him, both Whigs and Democrats alike. 3

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that “character is destiny.” And Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” There is, perhaps, no better example of this principle in action than the life and leadership of President Lincoln.

Determine to Succeed

Character may be decisive, but it’s not enough. Lincoln faced an incredible number of obstacles and setbacks that would of licked a weaker man. But Lincoln possessed something else: willpower—strength of mind. It was this will, this determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds that allowed Lincoln to persevere, to bounce back, to fall and get up again and again. Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” “Hold on,” he said, “with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.”

The Magic of EQ

The fourth takeaway is really a set of leadership lessons, which we might think of as the “magic” of emotional intelligence. If there was a magic to Lincoln’s leadership, it was in his extraordinary degree of emotional intelligence. More specifically, there are three key things that were an instrumental part of Lincoln’s leadership that really contributed to his abilities as a leader:

  1. See the Perspective of Others. The first is to see things from the perspective of others. Lincoln had great empathy and a remarkable capacity for taking others’ point-of-view, to feel what they were feeling and benefit from understanding their way of seeing things. “Tact,” he said, “is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.” And this was one of his strengths. It allowed him to be magnanimous in victory—and defeat; and gracious toward his critics and opponents—win or lose.

    At the end of the war, when General Lee surrendered he expected to be executed, but Lincoln wouldn’t think of it. He also gave strict orders regarding the Confederate soldiers. After surrendering their arms and artillery, they were allowed—with their horses and baggage—to go home to their families. Lincoln wanted to spare them as much humiliation as he could. And he won many of them over as a result.

    At the White House ceremony celebrating the Union’s victory, Lincoln even went as far as playing Dixie, the patriotic song of the South. “It is good,” Lincoln said, “to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.” So, he was a real, true “uniter,” a bridge-builder; and it was because of his ability to feel others’ feelings, to see through their eyes.

  2. Be Quick to Acknowledge Errors, Learn from Mistakes. Lincoln also possessed a high-level of self-awareness which enabled him to recognize, acknowledge and learn from his mistakes. And it was his self-awareness, combined with his humility, that really won the respect and admiration of his peers, his cabinet and even his opponents. Lincoln made mistakes, but he wasted no time—he recognized them, learned from them and moved on. Self-awareness also enabled him to recognize his weaknesses and, therefore, build a team that could compensate.
  3. Manage Emotions. Lincoln also had great self-control. He was the master at managing his emotions. President Eisenhower once visited Lincoln’s birthplace and shared this story: President Lincoln, one day, needed to see General McClellan, and so the President went over to the General’s house. But “General McClellan decided he didn’t want to see the President, and went to bed.” Well, you can imagine, “Lincoln’s friends criticized him severely for allowing a mere General to treat him that way.” But Lincoln, with all his empathy and self-control, said “All I want out of General McClellan is a victory, and if to hold his horse will bring it, I will gladly hold his horse.” So, Lincoln, kept his pride in check. And he kept his emotions focused on his purpose.

    And it’s not that Lincoln didn’t feel anger or hurt. But he used tactics for releasing his destructive emotions in other ways. For example, Carl Sandburg writes that Lincoln would often write emotional letters when he was angry—”hot letters,” he called them—but then he would throw them in the stove or he would put them in a drawer in his desk and read it the following morning and if he still felt like sending it, then he would—but he never did, because he was always cooled off and he would think better about it and not send it.

Communicate to Connect

The fifth leadership lesson we can learn from Lincoln is the importance of using communication to connect. Lincoln understood that communication was more than a way of getting ideas across. Lincoln was never merely talking at people or about himself and his ideas, he was always genuinely trying to connect with people. There are four secrets to Lincoln’s success as a communicator:

  1. Use Self-Deprecating Humor. One way he would connect with people is using self-deprecating humor. During a debate, for instance, one of Lincoln’s opponents, Stephen Douglas, accused Lincoln of being deceitful, he said he was two-faced. And Lincoln responded: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would be wearing this one?” People accused Lincoln of being plain-looking, but when he spoke, his face came alive, his facial expressions, his smile, his intensity—it was like a speaking charisma that attracted people and drew them in.
  2. Learn to Enjoy Telling Stories. He was also a mesmerizing speaker. One of the secrets to his success as a speaker, was that he LOVED to tell stories. There was nothing he enjoyed more than standing up and telling stories and telling jokes. He was a master storyteller. And who doesn’t like to listen to a good story from a good storyteller, particularly when you can tell they are really enjoying themselves when they’re speaking?
  3. Use Metaphors and Plain Language. Another secret to his success as a communicator was his ability to boil complex ideas down into easy to understand language. He used a lot of metaphors a lot of earthy, homespun language. And he would take these charged topics like slavery and use these compelling metaphors to communicate his ideas and that really won a lot of people over as well.
  4. Listen and Stay Close to the People. Finally, Lincoln was a really good listener and he spent a lot of time listening. And, so, when he spoke, he never came across as being out of touch with the people (like so many politicians in Washington today).

Master Team Leadership

The sixth leadership lesson we can learn from Lincoln is the importance of mastering team leadership. Much has been written about Lincoln as a team leader—most notably by the great presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her award winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. And I think the root of his abilities here come down to three things: his self-confidence or inner security, his strength of purpose, and his humility. In other words, because he was so secure with himself, because he was so determined to preserve the union and end slavery (down to his bones), and because of his genuine humility—this really enabled him to be an exceptional team leader. And these qualities allowed him to do five specific things that led to his success:

  1. Recruit the Best Team. First, it allowed him to recruit men of the highest caliber; men far more famous and, in some ways, more talented.
  2. Seek Counsel. Second, he was open and able to listen and seek the counsel of others and adopt their ideas when they were better than his own, better for the country and for his overall purpose.
  3. Demonstrate Humility. Third, the humility that he conveyed really endeared his team to him. Rather, than the attitude, ‘hey, I’m the president, now you work for me,’ Lincoln was always respectful and courteous and he frequently deferred to others expertise.
  4. Shoulder Responsibility. Fourth, Lincoln always shouldered responsibility for the mistakes of his team. At one point, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was being roundly criticized for the Union’s poor prosecution of the war. A ferocious public onslaught rose up and external pressure began to mount for Stanton’s removal. Lincoln—who had once been publicly humiliated by Stanton (Stanton called him a long-armed ape) soon came to Stanton’s aid and took full responsibility: “The Secretary of War is not to blame,” Lincoln said at a Union meeting, “… I believe he is a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.”4 So, he took responsibility and he always did that.
  5. Share the Glory and Credit. The fifth practice that was crucial to Lincoln’s success as a team leader was his willingness to share recognition and credit and even the limelight, which Lincoln loved. When Ulysses S. Grant returned to Washington after the battle of Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Lincoln prepared for him a hero’s welcome at the White House. And Lincoln even let Grant occupy the place of honor normally reserved for the president.

Continuous and Never-Ending Improvement

Finally, the seventh leadership lesson we can learn from Lincoln is the importance of continuous and never-ending improvement. From his earliest days as a youth, Lincoln was on the path of self-improvement. This is so critical. “The way for a man to rise,” he said, “is to improve himself in every way he can.” And that’s exactly what he did. He improved himself in every way he could and he rose to become our nation’s Chief Executive and one of the greatest legends of leadership that ever lived.

“Things may come to those who wait,
but only the things left by those who hustle.”
-Abraham Lincoln

Notes and Bibliography
  1. Guelzo, Allen C. (2009). Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 1.
  2. McGovern, George (2009). Abraham Lincoln (The American Presidents Series: The 16th President, 1861-1865). New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC. Pg. 2.
  3. Shenkman, Richard (1999). Presidential Ambition. New York: HarperCollins. Pg. 149.
  4. Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2006). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg. 454

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
-Abraham Lincoln



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