Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Lincoln

Today's business leaders who are grappling with questions of how to lead in turbulent times can learn quite a bit from Abraham Lincoln. As a U.S. President, Lincoln led the nation through the Civil War, emancipated the slaves, fought to restore and preserve the union, balanced common sense and idealism, and earned a local reputation for integrity and ability. Lincoln still stands as one of our greatest presidents.

In the book, "Lincoln on Leadership – Executive Strategies for Tough Times," author Donald T. Phillips examines Lincoln's diverse leadership abilities and how they can be applied to today's complex world.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks in a small town in Kentucky. He spent only 18 months in formal school; much of his education came from his own reading. He began his political career at the young age of 23, and five years later, he began his first protest against slavery.

Ironically, Lincoln lost his footing in the political scene and was twice an unsuccessful candidate for election to the U.S. Senate before his election as the 16th President of the United States.

Lincoln represented the summation of those leadership qualities that had helped to form a nation. The last great leader before industrial change, Lincoln stood for all that was right, honest, and self-evident.

His life – especially his presidency – demonstrated his leadership qualities. Some of his inherent abilities were natural; others were consciously developed over the course of his life.

At first, Lincoln appeared as a man unable to lead the nation out of a dark dilemma. He'd never held an executive leadership position. He'd only been a one-term national congressman. He had no military experience, had never been in battle and had been only an elected captain in the Illinois militia briefly during the Black Hawk War.

Few people at the time could have known that he possessed all the leadership qualities and abilities necessary to save the Union. And no one would have been able to predict the unparalleled strength of his leadership – that he would seize upon the very circumstances at hand, created by the crises of confusion, urgency and desperation, to exercise the full power of his office, and to create new limits of authority and leadership for the presidency.

Lincoln demonstrated an ability to withstand adversity and to move forward in the face of frustration with the following leadership lessons:

  • “Honesty is the best policy” (favorite saying of Lincoln).
  • Have confidence in the power of lofty principles. Do not be afraid to inspire those you lead.
  • Appeal to the best in people, not the lowest common denominator.
  • Pragmatic compromise does not require the negation of idealism.
  • A good solution now is far more valuable than a perfect solution when it is too late.
  • Prioritize. It is often best to fight “one war at a time.”
  • Endure criticism, learn from criticism, and act in spite of criticism.
  • Labor in the service of the highest goals.

Looking at the life of Abraham Lincoln, we can learn from his experience and become better leaders ourselves.