9 Management Lessons from Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

I was just crying over the Lincoln assassination (news travels slowly around here). Doris Goodwins’ excellent Team of Rivals’ primary theme is a management lesson.

Here are my top 9 management takeaways.

9. Surround Yourself By People On Different Sides

This is the book’s primary management lesson. Bring the people who are on opposite sides of the issues on to your team, to get the best ideas, and also the widest support from their followers.

Lincoln did limit himself to Northern Republicans and one War Democrat. So the Team of Rivals was not that broad.

Building a team of people on opposite sides of you can be a good start, but it will probably backfire unless you also do points 5, 3, and 1 below.

8. Use Humor, Tell Stories

Lincoln was funny. Humor entertains and disarms. It’s a great way to bond, and to release group tensions. You do have to be able to control the urge, and respect other people’s time and group schedules. But with that caveat, if you can connect with people through humor and stories, do so.

Lincoln’s humor was often self-deprecating, and was often used to convey a point.

My favorite two examples:

“If I have one vice … it is not to be able to say no. Thank God for not making me a woman, but if He had, I suppose He would have made me just as ugly as He did, and no one would ever have tempted me.”

And while explaining why the United States would accept some indignities from Great Britain (in Lincoln’s opinion) and then stand up to Britain after completing the Civil War, he compared it to a dying man who wanted to make peace with his biggest enemy, a man named Brown.

“So Brown was sent for, and when he came the sick man began to say, in a voice as meek as Moses’s, that he wanted to die at peace with all his fellow-creatures, and he hoped he and Brown could now shake hands and bury all their enmity. The scene was becoming altogether too sad for Brown, who had to get out his handkerchief and wipe the gathering tears from his eyes … After a parting that would have softened the heart of a grindstone, Brown had reached the room door when the sick man rose up on his elbow and called out to him: ‘But see here, Brown; if I should happen to get well, mind, that old grudge stands.'”

Lincoln had built up his initial support base by telling stories to his fellow lawyers. He used stories and humor to defuse tension and to reconcile after strife. You don’t have to be the entertainer that Lincoln was, but if you can bond with others through light humor, do so.

7. A Good Loss Sometimes Beats a Bad Win

Lincoln rival Salmon Chase won his US Senate seat with a clever deal where he delivered wavering voters to party’s rivals. The deal might even have helped the anti-slavery cause. But it earned him the eternal hatred of his old allies, and a few years later probably cost him the presidential nomination.

In stark contrast, Lincoln once appeared on the cusp on a US Senate seat, holding a 47-46-5 lead in a three way vote. But he didn’t think he could get the 51 votes he needed, so he instructed his people to throw their support to the other anti-slavery candidate, who had just 5 votes. At the time it looked like Lincoln was sacrificing his last chance to make a difference in politics. Instead, the support and goodwill bought here would be crucial to winning the Republican nomination for the presidency years later.

6. Be Idealistic and Practical

After Lincoln, Reagan was probably the next best Republican president on this point. They both understood that ideologues had to spend most of their life compromising. The best example from Lincoln was his various proposals for the government to compensate slave owners generously for releasing their slaves. This would have cost far less than the war, even if you don’t consider the devastating loss of life. But abolitionists hated this plan because it legitimized the past slavery (I’m simplifying). So the uncompromising ideologues on both sides continued the march to death and destruction.

5. Listen

This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. It’s human nature to gather others and then just use them as a sounding board, or as a challenge to see if we can convince them of our ideas.

A friend of mine once told me of a boss who one day insisted that he was really listening to his management team, and then the next day asked them “what did I do wrong to make you think that I’d even consider changing my position on this?” Listening is hard, it really is. But if you can’t do it, just assemble a crew of yes-men, it will be easier for everyone.

Humor and stories are good ways to bond. But listening is far more important. Stephen Covey does a good job discussing listening. There’s listening while preparing how to word your response. You see people doing that all the time. Watch others do it, and then swear not to do it yourself. Covey discusses seeking first to understand and then to be understood. You can’t bond with people or earn their trust unless they really believe you’re listening, and giving them every opportunity to win you over. Fake that, and you’ll have them. Just kidding.

4. Assassination Crush The Victim’s Presumed Enemies

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln to defend the South’s honor. And the assassination was probably even more devastating to that cause than the war. It killed the one man who had both the desire and the ability to bring about a reconciliation that — while ending slavery — would have been reasonable for the South.

That’s almost always true of assassinations, which is one reason conspiracy theories are so prevalent after each one. Everybody knows that they most help the victim’s presumed allies and crush the alleged assassin’s cause. It was true with John F. Kennedy, whose successor won by the Democrats’ biggest landslide ever. It was true of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. The Israeli public had largely concluded that Rabin’s concessions to Yassir Arafat would bring Israel and the world not peace but increased terrorism. Whether Rabin was right or wrong, the assassination sanctified his path and crippled and deligitimatized the opposition.

3. Be Honest

Too often I’m in a room wondering how others are trying to manipulate me. Lincoln had his manipulative moments. But generally speaking he earned his rivals’ confidence that he was playing above board, without hidden agendas. Without that, your rivals will never give you their trust. Why should they? The famous Lincoln quote “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” rings true. If you don’t really earn your rivals’ confidence, then don’t expect to have it. They’ll try to block every move you try to make, because they won’t trust your motives. Don’t get there.

2. Make Plans

Lincoln made things happen. The opening chapter of Team of Rivals tells the story of Lincoln’s longshot capture of the Republican nomination. He negotiated to get the convention in his hometown when his opponents considered that neutral ground (since they didn’t take Lincoln’s potential candidacy seriously). He gathered his supporters. Positioned himself for the second round of voting. He was an energetic, proactive, and patient man, and a brilliant strategist. Think clearly, work hard, make things happen.

1. Make Peace

Yeah, I hate ending the list with liberal drivel, so let’s keep this between us. What most set Lincoln apart from his close rivals was his success at making peace with his enemies. Lincoln got nominated because he became enough delegates’ second choice. Throughout his life he became a master at reconciliation.

His second inaugural address famously included

“With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The quote is great for its twists. It starts off reconciliatory, then speaks of firmness, then acknowledges (as he did more explicitly previously in the address) that others of courage and integrity interpret right differently. He then surprises by identifying the “work we are in” as not the war which is not yet over, but the reconciliation which has not yet begun.

I recognize the irony of considering Lincoln a peacemaker. He presided over the nation’s most devastating war. He indeed failed to find a peaceful way to preserve the union while still fighting to limit slavery. So that’s a pretty big exception, but it was an issue that had been threatening to consume the nation for fourscore and seven years. Lincoln at least brought relatively successful resolution, albeit at a horrible price.

So perhaps it’s worth noting that on smaller scales as well Lincoln’s peace was not of the ignore the problem variety. The Hebrew word for peace, Shalom, comes from its word for complete, Shalem (which forms half of the name Jerusalem). Lincoln addressed problems. Sought out his rivals, bonded with them, and generally succeeded in reducing their hatreds of him.

Human nature has a very dark side, and Lincoln clearly knew it. We hate. We desire that others fail and suffer. First step is to acknowledge it in ourselves, and to recognize that the more angrily I hate someone, the more I need to ask myself if the fault is in me. Sometimes the answer is  no, but more often IMO it’s yes. Get over yourself. Recognize your dark side. Accept others’ dark sides. Try to reach the “so, we cool?” moments with your rivals. Lincoln’s rivals didn’t. He did. And it made all the difference.