“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; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

-Abraham Lincoln

There are two kinds of leadership. First one is of the ordinary kind which at the best can maintain an efficient status quo and at the worst allows things to degenerate into a chaos. The second one is the uplifting leadership which can save alive a nation’s soul from disaster and raise the individual and corporate life to a higher level of values. Abraham Lincoln is an exemplar of this second kind of leadership. Lincoln is a legend among American people and one of the most admired heroes of American historian and biographers. Numberless biographies are written on him in America. This case study is based on the following sources:

  1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperback.
  2. “Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln” A Conversation with Doris Goodwin in Harvard Business Review, 1st April 2009

The Leader of Rivals

We can get a glimpse of Lincoln’s character when we look at the composition of the Cabinet formed by him after he was elected as the President of US. Lincoln made his arch political rivals his core cabinet team. Initially none of them liked Lincoln and some of them looked down upon him with contempt and scorn. But Lincoln won over them by his extraordinary character and personality. Stanton, his Secretary of War, who once described Lincoln contemptuously as a ‘long-armed Ape,’ became one of his greatest admirers and said later that Lincoln was the ‘best among us’ and ‘superhuman’ in his magnanimity. Similarly another member of the Cabinet, Bates, who regarded Lincoln as weak and incompetent, later admired him as a near perfect human being. As Goodwin describe this aspect of Lincoln’s characters and leadership:

“It soon became clear, however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals. The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days. Seward was the first to appreciate Lincoln’s remarkable talents, quickly realizing the futility of his plan to relegate the president to a figurehead role. In the months that followed, Seward would become Lincoln’s closest friend and advisor in the administration. Though Bates initially viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator, he eventually concluded that the president was an unmatched leader, ‘very near being a perfect man.’ Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander in chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death. Even Chase, whose restless ambition for the presidency was never realized, at last acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.”

Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues were not only his political rivals but also strong and powerful personalities with a big ego and of very different temperaments. For example, Stanton is virtually the opposite of Lincoln in character. “No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike,” Stanton’s private secretary, A.E. Johnson, observed. “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to re­pair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea, even in moments of the gravest peril; Stanton would lash himself over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan; Lincoln would find a fanny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature … yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”

These perceptive comments bring out forcefully Lincoln’s character and his leadership style. He didn’t surround himself with weak sycophants but strong men who can complement him, which means who can support him with skills and qualities which he himself lacked. They are also men who thought very differently from Lincoln and bold enough to express their disagreement in strong words. Lincoln came to power when his nation was in peril and on the verge of getting split into North and South on the issue of slavery. Lincoln felt strongly that in such a crisis situation personal likes and dislikes and old animosities or hurt feelings should be set aside in choosing the leaders of a nation. When people asked him why he choose his rivals as his colleagues, Lincoln replied: “we needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet. I had looked the party over and concluded these were the strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” Thus Lincoln did not deliberately choose his rivals as his cabinet colleagues. He choose them because he felt that his rivals are the most able men in his party and the country. As Goodwin points out:

“But you have to remember, the idea is not just to put your rivals in power—the point is that you must choose the best and most able people in the country, for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.”

Even some of the fundamentalist supporters of slavery, who opposed Lincoln’s firm anti-slavery stance and wanted to break-away from the Union, admired Lincoln as a leader. Charleston Mercury, a paper wellknown for its fanatical support for slavery, wrote:

“He has called around him in counsel—the ablest and most earnest men of his country. Where he has lacked in individual ability, learning, experience of statesmanship, he has sought it and found it—–Force, energy, brain, earnestness he has collected around him in every department.”

Goodwin, writing on the contemporary relevances of this unique style of Lincoln’s stewardship for corporate and political leadership, states:

“I can’t emphasize strongly enough the fact that you’ve got to surround yourself with people who can argue with you and question your assumptions. It particularly helps if you can bring in people whose temperaments differ from your own. When Lincoln brought Edwin Stanton into the cabinet in 1862 as secretary of war, for example, Stanton was much tougher, much more secretive, than Lincoln, who was often too kind to subordinates and at times too open. Their opposite temperaments balanced each other out. Where Lincoln was too lenient, issuing pardons for soldiers who had run away from battle to the point of hurting military discipline, Stanton was relentless in his desire to punish cowardice. By working together, pardons were issued, but not in the numbers they had been under Lincoln alone.”

However, whether a leader has to deliberately surround himself with people with opposite temperament is a debatable question. What is important in choosing people is the requisite character, temperament and ability to do the job effectively.

As we have indicated earlier, the main lesson a corporate or political leader has to learn from Lincoln is that professional rivalries, personal likes and dislikes resulting from temperament or past incidents should not come in the way of choosing the right people.   Similarly, whether “brain-storming” in the form aggressive questioning, argument and assertion of the ego is the most effective way of working, is another debatable point. A leader should have the maturity to listen, to learn from and reconcile conflicting viewpoints. But giving free reign to endless debates may not lead to effective decision-making. At a certain stage, the leader has to put an end to the debate and take a firm decision. Interestingly Goodwin recognizes this factor as the flip-side of Lincoln’s style. When she was asked, “What’s the downside of creating a team of Rivals,” Goodwin states:

If you are as inclusive a leader as Lincoln was, or as President Obama seems to be, then the danger is that you’re constantly talking and arguing about things late into the night without reaching a consensus. It can be paralyzing. So you have to be prepared to vote on decisions, and if a vote results in a stalemate, then you have to make the decision yourself and be ready to tell the team, “Like it or not, here’s what we’re doing.”

The most effective method is the way of intuition, which is to keep the mind silent with an aspiration to what is the best for the common good and wait for an intuitive answer from within. This can be done individually as well as collectively.

The Inner Charisma

What made Lincoln the most beloved leader among American people? He cast a spell and a charm over whoever came into contact with him and transformed his rivals into his staunch supporters, friends and admirers. But, Lincoln was not outwardly a charismatic personality. He was tall and lanky but awkward in his features, appearance and manners with a melancholic sadness in his face. As Goodwin recounts some of the observations of Lincoln’s contemporaries on his outer appearance:

“Lincoln’s shock of black hair, brown furrowed face and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring, his partner William Herndon recalled. He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel. “His legs,” another observer noted, “seemed to drag from the knees down, like those of a labourer going home after a hard day’s work.”

Thus Lincoln’s charisma comes not from his external personality, but from the character of his inner being which came to the front when he started speaking. As a reporter Horace White observed, “Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart and the promise of true friendship.” All those who came into contact with Lincoln felt this extraordinary inner presence. “It wasn’t anything immediately felt as charisma” states Goodwin, “his popularity almost came from inside out. His cabinet was the first to see something unusual about him. Take William Seward, who originally was a rival. Some eight weeks after becoming secretary of state, Seward wrote to his wife that Lincoln was unlike anyone he’d ever known. Other members of the cabinet came to think so, too. One after another, they came to power thinking Lincoln was rather unexceptional and ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they’d ever met.”

This inner character of Lincoln was made of a sharp, brilliant mind, gifted speech, a will persistently focused on the purpose and above all an extremely magnanimous heart—all the qualities of a born leader.

We will not enter into the perennial debate on whether a leader is born or made. In the integral perspective it is both. In every human being there is an external personality and an inner being. The external self is mostly shaped by the outer environment and genetics. And the inner being contains the accumulated result of our past evolution through many births. Both these external and inner being can grow and develop through a process of unconscious natural evolution and a self-directed conscious evolution, through education, experience and discipline. However the inner being of a person is to a certain extent born. A well-developed inner being, the “born” element in a person, can come forward and make itself felt even during childhood or the early years of growth. Most of the great leaders including Lincoln exhibited leadership qualities during their early years of child and youth. Goodwin recounting the childhood days of Lincoln, writes:

Even as a child, Lincoln dreamed heroic dreams. From the outset he was cognizant of a destiny far beyond that of his unlettered father and hardscrabble childhood. “He was different from those around him,” the historian Douglas Wilson writes. “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential.” To the eyes of his schoolmates, Lincoln was “clearly exceptional,” Lincoln biographer David Donald observes, “and he carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.” His mind and ambition, his childhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled, “Soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read & thoroughly read his books whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader.”

The sadness in Lincoln’s personality is predominantly external, probably the result of his hard and difficult childhood and youth. But as the reporter Horace White observed, when Lincoln speaks his inner being came into the front animating his outer self.

Love of Learning

Lincoln was born in poverty and had very little formal education. But he had taught himself through books and the experiences of life and developed a sharp, wide and tolerant intelligence which is open to knowledge and multiple viewpoints. Unlike many men and women of action who detested the life of thought as something abstract and nebulous, Lincoln had a vigorous intellectual life. As Robert Bruce, one of his contemporaries, observed that Lincoln, “seem to live more intensely through the process of thought, the expression of thought, and the exchange of thought with others.”

From his early days Lincoln was a voracious reader. “Books became his academic college” writes Goodwin, “the printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past. Relatives and neighbours recalled that he scoured the country side for book and read every volume he could lay his hands on.” Lincoln’s quest for knowledge covered a wide range of subjects like philosophy, political economy, astronomy, geometry and literature. As Goodwin describes how Lincoln blended his work, which gave him the experience of life, with his intellectual quest for knowledge.

“Working simply to “keep body and soul together” as a flat boatman, clerk, merchant, postmaster, and surveyor he engaged in a systematic regimen of self-improvement. He mastered the principles of English grammar at night when the store was closed.   He carried Shakespeare’s plays and books of poetry when he walked along the streets. Seated in the local post-office, he devoured newspapers. He studied geometry and trigonometry while learning the art of surveying. And then, at the age of twenty-five, he decided to study law.”

This ability to learn or constant learning is now recognised as a leadership quality. Lincoln possessed this quality prominently in his character and temperament. As Leonardo Swett, a professional comrade of Lincoln in his legal career states, “Life was to Lincoln a school and he was always studying and mastering every subject came to him.” However Lincoln’s concept of learning is different from the modern corporate conceptions of learning based on skill development or professional capacity-building. This narrowly pragmatic concept of learning, though legitimate for the corporate world, is not enough for top corporate or political leadership which requires a wider concept of learning. We can find this concept of learning in the ancient Hellenistic ideal of mental development. As Sri Aurobindo describes this ideal:

“A clear and balanced reason and an enlightened and well-trained mentality,—trained in the sense of ancient, not of modern education. It was not to be packed with all available information and ideas, cast in the mould of science and a rational utility and so prepared for the efficient performance of social and civic needs and duties, for a professional avocation or for an intellectual pursuit; rather it was to be cultured in all its human capacities intellectual, moral, aesthetic, trained to use them rightly and to range freely, intelligently and flexibly in all questions and in all practical matters of philosophy, science, art, politics and social living.”

Abraham Lincoln, in his quest for knowledge or learning, followed this Hellenistic ideal of learning.

Leading from the Heart

Lincoln was endowed with a keen and wide intelligence but he was not an intellectual by temperament. He was basically a man of action who led from his heart. One of the most prominent qualities of his personality, which made him an endearing leader is his Himalayan magnanimity, which his cabinet colleague, Stanton describes as “superhuman.” This superlative appreciation of Stanton was perhaps based on his own experience of Lincoln’s magnanimity. Stanton was a professional rival of Lincoln. When Lincoln was pursuing his career as a lawyer, Stanton deprived Lincoln of a lucrative offer from a client, by talking ill of Lincoln and persuading the client to give the assignment to him. Stanton told the client: “Why did you bring that long-armed Ape here—he does not know anything and do no good.” However Lincoln remained in the court to see Stanton representing his client. Lincoln listened with rapt attention and was very much impressed by Stanton’s talent as a lower and his dedication to his profession and his client. Later when Lincoln became president and met Stanton after six years, he offered Stanton the most powerful and important post as the Secretary of war.

Goodwin regards this “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation or bitterness” as one of the great leadership qualities of Lincoln. Stanton was won over by Lincoln’s magnanimity and “come to respect and love Lincoln more than any other person outside of his immediate family.” Lincoln’s magnanimity was not confined to his VIP colleagues but flowed equally to people in all the levels of the economic, social and political hierarchy. Here is an interesting episode recounted by Goodwin:

“The story is told of an army colonel who rode out to the Soldiers’ Home, hopeful of securing Lincoln’s aid in recovering the body of his wife, who had died in a steamboat accident.  His brief period of relaxation interrupted, Lincoln listened to the colonel’s tale but offered no help.  “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?” The disheartened colonel returned to his hotel in Washington.  The following morning, Lincoln appeared at his door, “I was a brute last night,” Lincoln said, offering to help the colonel in anyway possible.”

This magnanimity of Lincoln’s temperament expressed itself in his mind as a wide, mental, tolerance with a readiness to listen to, accept, understand or learn from different and conflicting view-points or in other words, the ability for democratic leadership. Lincoln listened patiently with a genuine openness to the view-points of his colleagues before coming to a decision. The other aspects of his mental magnanimity is his willingness to accept his mistakes and also assume responsibility for others mistakes. “He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes” says Goodwin and “took responsibility for what he did and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others.”

The other important quality of Lincoln’s character is his empathy, which according to Goodwin is the ability to “put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Lincoln was uncommonly tenderhearted. He once stopped and tracked back half a mile to rescue a pig caught in mire. This quality of empathy made Lincoln not only compassionate and a little melancholic but also successful as a leader. As Goodwin explains:

“Though Lincoln’s empathy was at the root of his melancholy, it would prove an enormous asset to his political career. “His crowning gift of political diagnosis,” suggested Nicolay, “was due to his sympathy…which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.” She described how, after listening to his colleagues talk at a Whig Party caucus, Lincoln would cast off his shawl, rise from his chair, and say: “From your talk, I gather the democrats will do so and so…I should do so and so to checkmate them.” He proceeded to outline all “the moves for days ahead; making them all so plain that his listeners wondered why they had not seen it that way themselves.” Such capacity to intuit the inward feelings and intentions of others would be manifest throughout his career.”

As we said earlier Lincoln was a little melancholic but not depressed. On the contrary, had remarkable sense of humour, which he regarded as the “joyous, universal evergreen of life” and as an integral part of his personality. Lincoln’s humour is not cynical but “life-affirming” and almost everyone who came into contact with Lincoln testified that he was “an extraordinarily funny man.” Lincoln was a born story-teller who charmed people with his witty lores which are not only funny but with a moral significance. While talking about the early youthful years of Lincoln, Goodwin writes:

“In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories nor his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chances to hear a master storyteller. Everywhere he went, he won devoted followers, friendships that later emboldened his quest for office.”

This sense of humour, and the gift for oratory and story telling made Lincoln a great communicator which enhanced his effectiveness as a leader. “This great story-telling talent and oratorical skill” states Goodwin “would eventually constitute his stock-in-trade throughout both his legal and political career. The passion for rendering experience into powerful language remained with Lincoln throughout his life.”

Leading War with Grace

We have discussed so far Lincoln’s personality, character and style as a leader. But a leader has to be judged by her achievements or contribution to the uplifting of a people and how her character or style helped in this achievements or contribution. Abraham Lincoln was a nation-builder who led and won a crucial civil war which brought unity to the American nation and freedom to millions of enslaved people. This Civil War of America was fought over the issue of slavery between the two factions of the Nation: North and South, first against slavery and the other for slavery.   Lincoln stood firmly for unity and freedom. He led the Northern states to victory against the southern rebels who clung to slavery, and helped in unifying the American nation. We will not go into the details of this War which was one of the bloodiest in history. As Goodwin describes the nature and devastation wrought by the war,

“A war had begun that no one imagined would last four years and cost greater than six hundred thousand lives—more than the cumulative total of all our other wars, from the Rev­olution to Iraq. The devastation and sacrifice would reach into every com­munity, into almost every family, in a nation of 31.5 million. In proportion to today’s population, the number of deaths would exceed five million.”

When Lincoln took over as president, the War department was in a state of hopeless chaos and totally unprepared for the conflict. Whatever needed for war—equipment, medicine, people, finance, medicine, clothes—were in short supply. Lincoln has to mobilise the resources and bring competent people to lead the North to victory.

Lincoln was not a warrior-type of personality like Alexander or Napoleon. As we have discussed earlier, Lincoln is of a tender, gentle and magnanimous temperament with a bent towards democratic leadership. He has certain strength in his character and will, but even this strength was expressed in a gentle and unassuming way without imposing itself on others. According to traditional thinking on leadership, such a personality is unfit for leading wars or crisis situations which require quick decision-making and forceful action. Here comes the unique greatness of Lincoln as a leader. Lincoln led and won the war and steered his nation to unity with his soft and gentle qualities, wielding them with grace and using them as effective instruments of leadership. As Goodwin points out, “in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty and sympathy—can also be impressive political resources.”

For example, Lincoln displayed great magnanimity in choosing Stanton and Chase his professional and political rivals, as his cabinet ministers. In choosing these men, Lincoln set aside all personal likes and dislikes, past hurts, insults or rivalries and gave them the most important positions in his cabinet, based entirely on their abilities. This self-transcending decision of Lincoln proved to be very effective and successful. Both Chase and Stanton brought efficiency, order and discipline to the department of War and Treasury, which helped in winning the war.

Lincoln, as the war-time President, had to face all the difficulties and tribulations of leading a bloody and long conflict. There were ups and downs in the progress of war, with a constant threat of an invasion by the rebel forces. Once the Southern forces came very near to Washington, there was anxiety, fear and tension all around. But Lincoln remained calm and kind with his unfailing magnanimity, empathy, humour, “I have rarely seen him more serene and busy” reported John Hay, a personal secretary of Lincoln, “He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a recon­struction of the Union, all at once. The most important things he de­cides & there is no cavil. I am growing more and more firmly convinced that the good of the country absolutely demands that he should be kept where he is till this thing is over. There is no man in the country, so wise, so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is.”

Lincoln was kind, wise and but not weak. He was firm and focused in his goal and purpose for victory in the war, unity of the Nation and a gradual eradication of slavery from the country. He led the war by living those famous words he uttered in one of his addresses to the Nation: “With malice towards none; charity towards all,” which includes the Southern rebels with whom he fought. Lincoln regarded these rebels as not his enemies but his erring brothers. Whenever he talked about them and their leaders like General Lee, he was never harsh, but kindly and understanding. Stanton recalled that, Lincoln, in a discussion, “spoke very kindly of General Lee and others of the Confederacy” exhibiting “in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.” And like many truly great leaders, Lincoln was magnanimous in victory, giving a general pardon to all rebel forces.

But Lincoln is human and not a god. He is not perfect but had his weaknesses. In his wide magnanimity he is unwilling to fire or chastise his erring or incompetent colleagues and subordinates. This is a major weakness for a leader of war, if it leads to keeping incompetent generals. Lincoln was too lenient to one of his generals, McClellan, who was blundering all along and not willing to push hard towards victory. Lincoln was not only unwilling to remove him but unreasonably soft with him. He used to go to the General’s house to discuss strategy but the general made the President of America wait. Some of the aids of Lincoln became furious and requested him not to tolerate such insulting behaviour and remove him immediately. But Lincoln was reported to have told them: “I am ready to hold his horse if he can bring victory to us.” However, ultimately Lincoln did remove McClellan and replaced him with a more competent general who led the Northern forces to victory. But a more warrior-type of leader would not have tolerated such incompetence or behaviour from a general and taken swift action to remove him, which could have prevented much human loss and shortened the duration of war. As Goodwin describes this flip-side of Lincoln’s character:

“He had flaws, of course; every leader has flaws. Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them. He always wanted to give somebody a second or even a third chance. This weakness proved disastrous with George McClellan, who was head of the Union Army for some months near the beginning of the war. Lincoln should have fired McClellan within weeks of seeing how narcissistic and insubordinate he was. In part, Lincoln didn’t because at that time he didn’t have enough confidence in his own understanding of military affairs. He was still learning about how to wage war by going to the Library of Congress and reading books on military strategy. But in the end it was his inability to hurt people that made Lincoln keep McClellan on far too long. As a result, battles were lost, and thousands of soldiers died who might have lived had Lincoln fired McClellan earlier. So it wasn’t just a small flaw.”

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