Lincoln’s Lesson

Abraham Lincoln had a short memory.

The 16th president faced more problems of greater magnitude than any other president before or since. Civil war, overt interference from foreign powers, a six-fold increase in public spending, creation by fiat of paper money, aggressive enmity of the Chief Justice, a combative and concerted Congress, rampant disease in the capital, and the dismissal and disdain of the Establishment as well as the Fourth Estate.

And that was just his first year.

Yet Lincoln had one trait which helped him navigate those unprecedented times which we could emulate.

He had a short memory.

He would reach out across political aisles, geographical boundaries, philosophical divides or personal animosity to anyone who could help him save the Republic. Past transgressions were forgotten. Lincoln lived in the moment subsuming his ego in favor of the needs incumbent in his role.

As he often said, “I am in favor of short statutes of limitations in politics.”

150 years ago political maneuvering, organizational behavior and the lust for leadership was not very different than it is today. People seek power and influence for various reasons – some noble, some not – but most of us put our own needs and interests first in our quest for command.

One belief holds that to get and keep power you should surround yourself with lesser talent.

Yet Lincoln filled his own cabinet – at that time a much more functional team than the siloed practice of today – with outright personal adversaries and political opponents including Cameron, Bates, Seward and yes, even his most active foil, Salmon P. Chase.

Why would any leader place public, vocal and direct opponents in positions of power?

He thought they were the best

For those facing the leadership challenges of today the lesson remains: put the best people you can in charge in your organization.

Put the best in place.

How many times have we seen leaders at all levels fill supporting roles with toadies, yes-men and hangers-on all afraid to challenge that leader in any way?

Think of the strength it takes to select and support those who have lobbied against you. Could you do that? I would struggle.

Yet Lincoln knew as other great leaders have and will that the needs of the time were greater than he could address with anything less than a stellar team. He needed the brightest minds and most independent thinkers unafraid to try things that hadn't been done before.

He needed the best regardless of their history with him.

Leadership models abound with books, seminars and courses widely available. Yet I believe it makes sense to learn leadership from those who have actually led. Those who have tried, failed, rebounded, resounded and in the end were relentless in pursuit of their objectives.

Abraham Lincoln gives us perhaps the most succinct and meaningful leadership lesson: put your best people in charge and your ego in check.

The needs of the organization outweigh the needs of the leader.



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