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The Leadership Style of Abraham Lincoln

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You won’t go far in leadership analysis before you read about Abraham Lincoln being one the greatest leaders in modern history. It wasn’t until I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals when I truly understood and appreciated just how much of a leader Lincoln was. In Team of Rivals, Doris sets out to relive the story surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and his presidency. The book provides an extensive portrait of the political figures who were vying for the presidency of the United States in 1861 while narrating one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. The book does a tremendous job of analyzing Lincoln as well as his three main competitors for the Republican nomination – Salmon P. Chase, William Henry Seward, and Edwin Bates.

There are a multitude of reasons why anyone would find Abraham Lincoln the classic definition of a leader and why he was an overall successful leader. Examples that I found throughout the book included his ability to preserve through tremendous hardships whether in his extremely poor upbringing, to his ability to maintain his composure during the bloodiest war in American history. In this paper, I will analyze and take a deeper look at his ability to galvanize and persuade people to follow him, his decision-making skills, and finally how he was able to leverage his greatest internally skill set, his emotional intelligence to bring people together and work towards common interest and resolutions

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Author Keith Grint summarizes in his work Leadership: A Very Short Introduction that there are four types of leadership types that any one person could be classified under. Those are position-based, person-based, result-based, and process-based. “However at its most basic, the ‘essence’ of leadership – as an individual leader – leaves out the followers, and without followers, you cannot be a leader. Indeed, this might be the simplest definition of leadership: ‘having followers’” (Grint, 2). As I read through Team of Rivals, I continued to see evidence of Lincoln being able to attract a follower base without a lot of resources. One example we see clearly is during the Republican nomination for the presidency. During the run-up to the nomination, Lincoln was very much the unknown candidate. Almost all of the other candidates were more funded, more well known, and had every advantage over him. As we see in the book though, Lincoln, however, was able to use the combativeness and aggressiveness of other candidates against them to gain support from the general public. “I am certainly not the first choice there; and yet I have not heard that anyone makes any positive objection to me.” (Goodwin, p 244) Lincoln did not speak out poorly against any of his fellow candidates nor did he allow his team at the convention to make any contracts that would bind him in exchange for nominative votes. Lincoln’s political skills, sound character, and circumstances at the convention won Lincoln the nomination.

Additionally, in the book, Doris Kearns Goodwin does a magnificent job at describing the upbringings of Lincoln and how that played a key role down the line of his ability to attract a follower base. Unlike the other three contenders Lincoln was not born to wealth, nor did he receive a prestigious education. In rural Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln was raised, most rural families could not afford the tuition for private schools and public education did not exist. Lincoln had to be his own teacher through books and interactions with people. Stories told by adults that came to visit his family had a profound effect on his life. He enjoyed finding meaning and moral lessons behind the stories and often used these stories as president to explain his decisions. Lincoln’s modest surroundings help him develop a level of empathy for his fellow human beings that none of his contenders could parallel. His ability to convey complex political issues in laymen’s terms served him well in speeches and thus in his ability to reach the people. Lincoln developed this skill as a young child, watching his father and other family members speak as he was transfixed. As quoted in the book, “Lincoln, unable to sleep, would reformulate the conversations until, as he recalled, I’d put it in a language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy, I knew to comprehend …. He had discovered the pride and pleasure an attentive audience could bestow.” (Goodwin, p50) Lincoln was able to take this passion and develop it to become one of his greatest skills once he became president. In Drucker on Leadership, we see how much importance Drucker placed in the role of communication positioning as an effective means of persuading a target audience. As stated in Drucker on Leadership, “It is impossible to imagine leadership without communication, and the importance of communication in leadership is self-evident.” (Cohen p245) However, the insight that Drucker laid out was in the positioning of the communication and discovered that much of communication and getting through to the receptors depended greatly on what was already in the hearts and minds of the receivers and the receiver’s reaction to the message. Lincoln clearly was ahead of his time as he took this approach and was able to position his communication whether it was through the confidence he was able to gain by having all these primarily republican competitors join his cabinet, to the ability to end the Civil War. What I see in Lincoln was someone was a masterful communicator and someone who used this skill to gain followers.

Abraham Lincoln’s decision-making skills were in my determination another reason why he was such as successful leader. Throughout his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was constantly required to make decisions that had enormous ramifications on the overall country. After reading Doris’ book and reviewing the Vroom-Yetton Normative Theory of leadership I saw instances of Lincoln using the different styles to come to a decision. Based on the normative decision tree, I would determine that Lincoln mostly used a CII which was to discuss situations as a team but to make the decision on his own. We see this most clearly during the early stages of his presidency when Lincoln was moving quickly to exercise the use of his presidential powers in would be the unraveling of America which led to the Civil War. However, despite being in charge Lincoln would often consult his cabinet throughout Team of Rivals to strengthen his ideas and speeches and gain criticism. He understood that a man’s ideas should be scrutinized. The cabinet meetings also showed that he would not bend to political pressure simply to get re-elected however he understood and was very concerned with public sentiment. Lincoln believed in coalition and cooperation which is what he was trying to create in his cabinet. Lincoln was not afraid of criticism and realized that he would need guidance to steer the country during such a tension-filled time. Ultimately what I really appreciated about Abraham Lincoln’s decision-making ability was that he never took one approach. He never just decided without consulting with others, but at the same time, he never let someone else decide for him. He ultimately knew he was the person that would be able to make the last choice, and he never shied away from that great responsibility.

Lastly, when I think of what made President Lincoln successful, in my opinion, it was because of his emotional intelligence and his ability to channel his emotional intelligence to bring people together and work towards common interests and resolutions. The profound lesson to be drawn from Team of Rivals is that Lincoln led brilliantly, not just from his mind, but also from his heart. General William Tecumseh Sherman who served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, called it his “greatness and goodness.” Lincoln’s intellectual skills were never in doubt. His capacity to use his critical thinking skills was abundantly clear since childhood, However, his deeply humanitarian instincts very well may be the reason he’ll be revered by all future generations. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in the book, “Lincoln’s prodigious influence on friends and foes alike was due to his “extraordinary empathy – the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling and to understand their motives and desires.” (Goodwin) Even as the civil war drew to a conclusion and the Union was destined to claim victory, Lincoln was keenly aware that any decision on punishing the south thoroughly, would ultimately hurt his long-term goal of unifying the country. Sadly, Lincoln was never able to see his vision of unifying the country come full circle as he was assassinated.

As I reflect on Team of Rivals and think back on what principles of leadership I was able to derive, four main principles would come up again and again. First, Lincoln’s ability to be decisive and bold when needed was clearly shown throughout the book. There was no better example than when Lincoln decides to move forward with the emancipation proclamation, which would free slaves in the Confederate states. His cabinet was deeply divided on the question — some were strongly in favor of emancipation, others were concerned that it would violate property rights, and still, others believed that it would do nothing but embolden the South to fight harder. “The proclamation was shocking in scope. In a single stroke, it superseded legislation on slavery and property rights that had guided policy in eleven states for nearly three-quarters of a century.” (Goodwin) Lincoln already knew that the Cabinet members were deeply divided on this issue. Rather than continue to rehash the same arguments again, Lincoln knew that it was time for a bold decision. So he made it. He set the right expectations with his leadership team — he “welcomed their suggestions,” but he had already “resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice.”

Secondly, Lincoln was determined to always surround himself with the best minds, who would challenge him. Many leaders are tempted to surround themselves with “yes people.” As a leader, it’s far more comfortable to select people who will readily agree with you and unquestioningly support your direction. Unfortunately, leaders who do this may fall victim to their own biases — confirmation bias, overconfidence, over-optimism, etc. They are likely to ignore warning signs and blind spots and overlook contrarian ideas and perspectives. Lincoln took the exact opposite approach. When constructing his cabinet, he selected the best people for the job — even his own political rivals, who were likely to disagree with him and challenge him. Once Lincoln had assembled this exceptional cabinet team, he leveraged the team’s intellectual horsepower at key moments.

Thirdly, It was Lincoln’s ability to stand up for his deeply held principles at moments when all was lost or defeated. At various times during his political career, Lincoln called for some revolutionary ideas, primarily the emancipation of all slaves. He advocated for these views to a deeply divided American. On one end, there were abolitionist Republicans who wanted to immediately end slavery for moral reasons. On the other end, there were conservative Democrats, some of whom harbored racist sentiments, and others who feared that ending slavery would strengthen the will of the Confederacy to fight harder.

To drive this tremendous change in society, Lincoln had to stand firm for his deeply held principles. Throughout his presidency, there were those among his own party that requested the President show some conciliations with the South during negotiations regarding the expansion of slavery into newly developed territory. Lincoln sent a clear message that he would stand by his morals and convictions and not allow for the expansion of slavery at any point of his presidency.

The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, however even today, we are not finished with the man who led the country through it. Lincoln’s journey was one of learning by doing, ongoing commitment to bettering himself, keen intelligence harnessed to equally astute emotional awareness and the moral seriousness into which he grew as he attained immense power. It was also an all-too-human path marked by setbacks, derailments, and disappointments that we see the leadership genius of Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately Abraham Lincoln made himself an effective leader. May anyone who aspires to lead learn from the life and leadership of the 16th president of the United States of America.

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