Leadership Secrets of Great Presidents for Business, Part Two: Abraham Lincoln

As leaders go, there are few better than Abraham Lincoln. I would hold him up as an example of a great president and leader because of some of his inherent character traits. As a President, there is a simple measurement for greatness. It has nothing to do with party or politics. It has everything to do with the actions taken under fire. Great presidents are great because of how they deal with the most pressing problems facing a nation while they are in the White House.

By that standard, there are few who come close to Abraham Lincoln. He had to save the nation from tearing itself apart during the Civil War, 1860-1865. During that time he not only prosecuted the war itself, but advanced and modernized the nation in a few short years. While Lincoln was reelected to a second term, he was assassinated a few short months later.

The time he had to do all that he did, while facing the forces arrayed against him is staggering to consider.

As it falls to business, there are a few essential elements that Lincoln embodies. The categories of business leadership are based upon INC. magazines character traits for business leaders. [1]

Great leaders…. support and facilitate the team.

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Any way that you look at his time as president, Abraham Lincoln inspired action. His election in 1860 inspired the South to secede, of course. Counterbalancing that negative reaction to action, Lincoln inspired the North to take up arms to save the Union. In his first inaugural speech, delivered as half of the nation was calling itself the Confederacy, Lincoln said the following:

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either.

Here Lincoln is supporting his team, The United States of America, calling for  cooperation,  not secession. As a great president, he is trying to unite, not divide the nation.

In business, leaders should seek to bring divided colleagues together, to see the larger picture and to let petty differences be seen as they really are, petty and unimportant in the larger scheme of things.

This is the second installment of Leadership Lessons from Great Presidents for Business from Historydojo. Please read the first installment here.

Great leaders … communicate.


Lincoln continued in his speech to show how great leaders lead. He called for communication, not violence, between the North and the South:

If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

Lincoln is speaking directly to the Southern leadership who did not attend his inauguration, an unusual if not unique moment in American history. He explains that the best, most mature, and logical approach to the problem is to trust their opponents.

Vilifying Lincoln helped the South to unite in secession. This is a mistake our politics makes today. Political opponents should remind each other of their integrity to work together, even after the most bitter disagreements, because of the common love of the nation.

In business, great leaders inspire their colleagues to remember the mission of the company, not to devolve into petty office politics and lose sight of the common goal.

Vilifying Lincoln helped the South to unite in secession. This is a mistake our politics makes today.

Great leaders… use integrity


In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

Lincoln is honest and upfront with his Southern detractors. It is on them to see that the right thing to do is to work together and follow his lead. He tells tham they need not fear him. He reminds them that he, like them is an American patriot, who loves the nation just as much as they do. He relies on his integrity to justify his leadership. He may not agree with his opponents, but he will never give up on the,. That is integrity. He will see the job through, regardless of personal feelings and perspectives, because the job is bigger than he is. It is the nation that matters most.

In business, leaders need to remind their colleagues that they are in it for the mission, and not just the paycheck. They lead because they care about the destination, not just the corner office. If that can be expressed effectively, integrity will be obvious to everyone. integrity will be rewarded, because everyone want to be part of something larger than themselves, seeking a mission that they believe in beyond just profits and quarterly results.

Great Leader are… optimistic.

abraham-lincoln-statue-at-memorial-78713007-58b9799b5f9b58af5c49936cLincoln ends his first inaugural address with an optimistic, poetic plea to the South. Throughout the speech he has been talking to the people not present, not seen in the crowd. He speaks to the nation by speaking to his supporters as if they would carry his message to the South. In business, leaders would be wise to follow this example.

Remember that every conversation will be carried around the office, from colleague to colleague, cubicle to cubicle, through the grapevine. Communicate with every individual as if you are speaking to the entire company, honestly and with compassion and diplomacy. A petty gossip is a poison that will not be forgotten and will come back to haunt any leader.

Lincoln sends a message of optimism and hope.

He ends his speech saying:

I am loath to close.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.

Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[2]

We are not enemies, but friends. We are to be guided by our “better angels.”

Lincoln uses optimism here to remind us that at the end of the day we are all seeking the good, for ourselves and for others. If we are guided by this optimistic view of human nature, we cannot but see that we will be better off working together to the best outcome.

It is as if he says, “Do not be afraid. We are in this together. We will be fine, as long as we see it through together and not lose hope.” 

Here Lincoln is reaching out to the Southern states that have turned their backs on the nation. Instead of petty attacks on their patriotism, which he could be justified in doing, he chooses the high rode.

He tries to inspire the South to remain and talk, debate and work through the problems. He uses language that does not denigrate but instead uplifts. Here Lincoln is an icon of leadership, with his eye on the larger, more important goal of keeping this national experiment in republican democracy in tact, he refrains from delving into baser motives and petty insults. He inspires others to cooperate for the greater good.

He leads by example. He unites and doesn’t divide. He is optimistic about who we are and what we all want. He sees the best in those who follow him and communicates this confidence in his team.

Leaders in business today would be best served bu those around them if they followed Lincoln’s example. Find someone today and let them know how they are making the company a better place. Seek out the divisions that you know exist in the workplace, address them and remind all sides that this is a team, with vision, that can do better together than when at odds with one another. Festering problems burn up productivity. Good leaders, like Lincoln address the problems and use positive, optimism to set the right course going forward.

[1] https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/7-traits-highly-effective-leaders.html

[2] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp

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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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