Lincoln on Leadership Summary

Abraham Lincoln and leadership characteristics

Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald Phillips

Leadership is an elusive concept with vague and ambiguous rules. This is why the art of leading people is so difficult to master.  To help us understand what works and what doesn’t work, we look to our heroes. Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes and he is known for his extremely effective leadership style.  After all, he did hold the union together and saved the United States from falling apart during the Civil War. Donald Phillips researched his actions, read his letters and notes, and studied his life to come up with some fundamental principles as to why Abraham Lincoln was such a great leader.

Lincoln on Leadership Part 1 – People

Get out of the office and circulate among the troops

  • Your people are your most valuable asset, so it’s vital that you get out of the office (frequently) and get to know them.
  • Subordinates are going to be more comfortable, open, direct, and truthful in their own environment.  When you’re in your subordinate’s space, you’re going to get the most up to date and accurate information.  You also want to get out into their space so you have visibility in the workplace.  This allows you to set the example and maintain casual contact in a relaxed atmosphere.  Those casual conversations lead to commitment and loyalty.
  • Give sincere praise and compliments when merited.
  • Have a good temper, pleasant demeanor, and affability around your subordinates.  If you’re frustrated about something, vent behind closed doors.
  • Be willing to do the things you ask your people to do.  Get out there and help/join them in their work if possible.

If they can stand it, I guess I can – Lincoln

  • Be compassionate, forgiving, and caring – this inspires trust and loyalty.
  • Ask questions of your followers in order to learn more about them and their job.
  • Be accessible and approachable.  Don’t decline people who want to discuss an issue or problem.
  • Know your people: who can be counted on, who is committed, and their strengths and values.
  • When you get out among your people and get to know them, you create an atmosphere of community, collaboration, and commitment.

Recommended viewing: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Summary.

Lincoln leadership style

Build strong alliances

  • Build strong interpersonal relationships – listen, pay attention, and establish trust.

If followers learn that their leader is firm, resolute, and committed in the daily performance of his duty, respect can be gained, and trust will soon follow.

  • Listen to your followers ideas, opinions, and suggestions and provide a broad strategy for them to follow.
  • Understand the ins and outs of human nature.
  • Keep hope alive and maintain a positive outlook.

Persuade instead of coerce

  • Drive to complete the mission, but always work with and through people.
  • Seek the consent of your followers (the majority).
  • Master the art of persuasion, bargaining, and persistence.

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. – Lincoln

First convince him that you are his sincere friend… once gained, you will find little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause

  • When you dictate, people have a tendency to retreat within themselves.
  • Follow the golden rule – treats others as you want to be treated.
  • No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent. – Lincoln

  • Empower, delegate, support, coach, elevate, nurture, guide, and be open with everyone.
  • Defend your people.
  • Encourage your subordinates to take initiative, make judgment calls, and act on their own (action-oriented).
  • Implying and suggesting things is more effective than commanding others to obey.
  • Use stories or anecdotes to persuade.
  • Be upfront with people.  Tell them what you think of them (in a non dis-respectful way), what you like about their character, and what you expect from them in the future.  Offer support and assistance.
  • Model the way.

Lincoln on Leadership Part 2 – Character

Be honest and transparent

  • Be fair, trustworthy, sincere, straightforward, and of sound principals and morals.
  • Set and instill moral standards, values, and goals by constant preaching and persuasion.
  • Elevate your subordinates to a higher level of awareness, motivation, and commitment.
  • Don’t deal with people you know to be dishonest.
  • Never assume someone to be guilty without knowing for sure.
  • Tell the truth even when it’s bad news.  Tell it like it is.

lincoln freedom

Never act out of vengeance and spite

  • Create a climate that encourages innovation and participation from subordinates.
  • Compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and kindness go a long way.  There is no sense in creating more enemies.  Never crush a man out – this will only create a permanent enemy.
  • Make no time for pettiness, spite, or vengeance

If the leader is petty, the subordinates will be petty.  If the leader is encouraging, optimistic, and courteous, the vast majority of the workers in the organization will be as well. – Phillips

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. – Lincoln

  • Pardon mistakes instead of chewing out subordinates.

Have the courage to handle unjust criticism

  • Persistently endure until final victory.
  • Be poised and confident under pressure.  Be courageous and competent.
  • Have faith and confidence in yourself, your values, and your beliefs.
  • Confront difficult situations decisively.
  • Formulate a good strategy and then communicate it.
  • Waste no time quarreling over trivial things and avoid conflict whenever possible.
  • Everyone faces criticism at some point (you can’t please everybody). Handle it with patience, forbearance, and determination.
  • Ignore most attacks if they are petty.  Fight back when they are particularly damaging.
  • If angry, vent behind closed doors and write a letter to express your frustrations, but do not send it.
  • Keep a sense of humor – look at the lighter side of a difficult situation.

Be a master of paradox

  • Be flexible, yet consistent – depending on the situation at hand.
  • Be trusting and compassionate, yet demanding and tough
  • Be a risk taker and innovative, yet patient and calculating

Lincoln on Leadership Part 3 – Endeavor

Exercise a strong hand – be decisive

  • Decisive leaders create a dynamic environment, set goals, preach their vision, and accomplish the mission.
  • Do not tolerate delay or inaction.
  • Be a hands on leader.  Decisively take charge when needed – Influence, guide, teach, and direct as needed.  When you suspect inactivity or lack of follow up, take charge, see for yourself, and make certain things are on track.
  • Allow your subordinates to take action, but don’t let them dictate policy.
  • Use the classic decision process – gather information, consider possible solutions and their consequences, ensure the solution is inline with policy/values, and then communicate your decision and implement it.
  • Take advantage of confusion and desperation to exercise strong leadership.
  • Compromise does not mean cowardice.

true leader - Lincoln

Lead by being led

  • Listen to subordinates and be guided by them without feeling threatened.  Give your subordinates the belief that it was their idea to begin with.  If their suggestions are out of line with objectives, focus and redirect to the proper path through hinting and suggesting.  Be open minded and flexible.
  • Let your subordinates guide themselves out of their mess.  Bring quarreling parties together and guide their dialogue.
  • Give credit when credit is due and take responsibility when things go wrong.
  • Praise, compliment, and reward when due.  Praise good work and encourage more of the same.
  • Exert some control, stay informed, be open minded and flexible, be willing to let subordinates take credit, and don’t feel threatened or insecure when doing so.

Set goals and be results-orientated

  • Set the direction, take initiative, be change oriented, and be results orientated.
  • Take the time to plan.  Set short term as well as long term goals.
  • Learn from mistakes, look at failures as learning opportunities.
  • Keep focus on your goal and create a sense of urgency toward that goal.
  • Gain acceptance from followers on your goals.  This unifies and motivates people.
  • Resolve dissension among subordinates – unresolved conflict slows progress.
  • Be reliable and persistent.
  • Keep your followers fired up.

Keep searching until you find your “Grant” 

  • Demand action.  Take charge yourself when no good leaders emerge.
  • Look for followers who take risks, take initiative, want responsibility, and get results.
  • Provide support but don’t accept delay.
  • Give subordinates a chance to turn things around.
  • Don’t be afraid to shake things up.
  • If people complain about their leader (and the complaints are just), take note and let the leader know so that they can make corrections.
  • Continuously monitor operations and provide guidance and influence when needed.
  • Coach and counsel new leaders and supervisors.

lincoln on leadership - Grant

Encourage innovation

  • Allow for an atmosphere of innovation, risk taking, and entrepreneurship – this creates commitment and gets things going.
  • Failures are learning opportunities and necessary steps to success.
  • Offer support and encouragement when subordinates fail – Don’t give up on them.
  • Treat subordinates as equals.  Ask your subordinates for help, ideas, and suggestions on how to improve things and how to implement them.  Rethink the system.

Lincoln on Leadership Part 4 – Communication

Master the art of public speaking

Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated – Lincoln

  • Persuade, arouse, and influence people through public speaking – use your emotions and body language.
  • Research your speeches thoroughly and then prepare for them by practicing.
  • Think before you speak – read from a manuscript if you have to (especially if there is a specific message you need to convey).
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say – be sincere, honest, and succinct.

An essential factor in leadership is the capacity to influence and organize meaning for members of the organization – Phillips

  • Be consistent, confident, and clear in what you say.  Follow through with what you say.
  • Couple written documents with verbal discussions.

Influence people through conversation and storytelling

  • Use humor, storytelling, and anecdotes to influence people.  People are interested in and relate to stories, not facts.  People remember stories, not data.
  • Communicate with people like they are an old friend – talk to them without self-consciousness, superiority, or pretension.
  • Use humor to alleviate stressful times.

The power to motivate followers resides in almost solely in the ability to communicate effectively. – Phillips

  • A person with a great deal of talent must be capable of expressing it… and if he cares about his employees, he can’t be reticent in telling them so.

Preach a vision and continually reaffirm it

  • Embody and communicate the organization/company vision.  Your vision should be clear, challenging, and inspiring.
  • Get followers to buy in to the vision – Gain acceptance.
  • Remind people of the vision and principals of the organization (often) and why it’s important.

Lincoln was self confident and patient, had resolve and perseverance, and learned from his mistakes.  Recommended reading: How to become more confident. He constantly looked for ways to do things better.  He was open minded and listened to opinions and suggestions of all kinds (and he wasn’t threatened by them).  He empowered his people and persuaded them to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities.  He was able to lift everyone up around him to a higher awareness, performance, and achievement.  Lastly, he treated everyone with respect and dignity no matter their position.

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