Leadership Lessons from Lincoln

The cover of the book Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I’m reading the book Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and really enjoying it. Here are some of my notes on the chapter about lessons that can be taken from the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, specifically around his work on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Anticipate contending viewpoints.

Lincoln has my full respect for creating a presidential cabinet full of people who frequently opposed him. Dissent from his advisors was something he cherished, because it allowed him to “stress-test” his ideas and decisions before taking them out into the wider world. Many leaders, in a misguided attempt to reduce conflict, surround themselves with people “smart enough” to agree with them all the time. Lincoln’s cabinet served him as a group of powerful “beta testers,” and by the time they were done discussing and railing against the Proclamation, he knew how he would need to convince the country to come along with him.

He had deliberately built a team of men who represented the major geographical, political, and ideological factions of the Union. For months past, he had listened intently as they wrestled among themselves about how best to preserve this Union. At various junctures, diverse members had assailed Lincoln as too radical, too conservative, brazenly dictatorial, or dangerously feckless. He had welcomed the wide range of opinions they provided as he turned the subject over in his mind, debating “first the one side and then the other of every question arising,” until, through hard mental work, his own position had emerged. His process of decision making, born of his characteristic ability to entertain a full carousel of vantage points at a single time, seemed to some painfully slow, but once he had finally come to a determination to act, it was no longer a question of WHAT—only WHEN.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 218). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

But how did he keep this critical, dissenting group of men engaged, and working together with him, even when he was determined to do what they disagreed with?

Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.

Lincoln took the time to really understand the men in his cabinet, to find out what they needed to feel effective and engaged, and then he tended to their needs. He also recognized when a cabinet member was struggling, and made time to talk to them or just spend time with them outside of work. He carved out time to spend one-on-one with each member of the cabinet, careful to avoid the impression of favoritism.

Not only that, but he sought out opportunities to praise his people:

“Every one likes a compliment,” Lincoln observed; everyone needs praise for the work they are doing. Frequently, he penned handwritten notes to his colleagues, extending his gratitude for their actions. He publicly acknowledged that Seward’s suggestion to await a military victory before issuing the Proclamation was an original and useful contribution. When he had to issue an order to Welles, he assured his “Neptune” that it was not his intention to insinuate “that you have been remiss in the performance of the arduous and responsible duties of your Department, which I take pleasure in affirming had, in your hands, been conducted with admirable success.” When compelled to remove one of Chase’s appointees, he understood that the prickly Chase might well be resentful. Not wanting the situation to deteriorate, he called on Chase that evening. Placing his long arms on Chase’s shoulders, he patiently explained why the decision was necessary. Though the ambitious Chase often chafed under Lincoln’s authority, he acknowledged “the President has always treated me with such personal kindness and has always manifested such fairness and integrity of purpose, that I have not found myself free to throw up my trust . . . so I still work on.”

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 224). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Combine transactional and transformational leadership.

If these terms don’t make a lot of sense to you, don’t despair! Goodwin explains:

Transactional leaders operate pragmatically. They appeal to the self-interest of their followers, using quid pro quos, bargains, trades, and rewards to solicit support and influence the behavior of their followers. Transformational leaders inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves—the organization, the community, the region, the country—and finally, to the more abstract identification with the ideals of that country. Such leaders call for sacrifice in the pursuit of moral principles and higher goals, validating such altruism by looking beyond the present moment to frame a future worth striving for.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (pp. 234-235). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What was fascinating to me about Lincoln’s brand of leadership is how he combined both approaches, adapting to the group he was trying to convince to get behind the Proclamation. In a public letter read aloud at a rally in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, he argued that by freeing the enslaved people of color in the South and enlisting black men in the Union Army, the Union would gain an advantage in the war: a fundamentally pragmatic approach. Once having secured the agreement of his objectors that black troops would help their shared cause, he switched to a transformational argument:

“If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motives—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” — Lincoln

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (pp. 235-236). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The proof was in the pudding. By the end of the Civil War, the majority of soldiers saw “emancipation and the restoration of the Union as inseparably linked,” says Goodwin.

Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.

One of Lincoln’s favorite ways to relax was by going to the theater. (I know, right?) He was apparently drawn to Shakespeare’s darker, more tragic plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. How relaxing, sir! But when the stress got so bad that he couldn’t sleep, he would wake up his aide John Hay and read aloud from Shakespeare’s comedies.

His appreciation of tragedy was matched by his appreciation of silliness, anecdote, burlesque. The narrow seam between tragedy and comedy afforded Lincoln what he called his “literary recreation.” When engaged in a comic tale, his laugh, the artist Carpenter noted, resembled the “neigh of a wild horse.” A friend observed that Lincoln’s laugh served as a “life preserver” for him. Hay recalled that only when “my heavy eye-lids caught his considerate notice would he stop & sent me to bed.” Recitation was Lincoln’s way of sharing in a common humanity during an uncommon, inhumanly isolating time.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 229). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 came into effect on January 1, 1863. Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, at a time that the Union’s victory was in serious doubt, and opposition to the Proclamation was still very strong. Lincoln’s party suggested to him that the only way he would be reelected, would be to start peace talks with the South and not push the emancipation issue with them.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing portrait of Lincoln as president

“I confess that I desire to be re-elected,” Lincoln acknowledged. “I have the common pride of humanity to wish my past four years administration endorsed,” and at the same time, “I want to finish this job.” Nonetheless, he rejected Raymond’s plea that he dispatch a commissioner to Richmond to meet with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. To sound out conditions for peace without demanding the end of slavery Lincoln considered “utter ruination.” He would rather face electoral defeat than renounce emancipation. He “should be damned in time & in eternity,” he vehemently declared, if he abandoned his commitment to the twin goals of Union and freedom. Moreover, those who accused him of “carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition” must understand that “no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever.” The word firmness is insufficient to connote the iron will with which Abraham Lincoln now stood his ground.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Leadership: In Turbulent Times (p. 239). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

In the end, Lincoln won reelection in a landslide, owing much of his success winning 7 out of 10 of Union soldier votes. These were the men who were most at risk in a continuing war, but they overwhelming showed their support for the cause that Lincoln had inspired them to believe in, too.


I’m really enjoying this book, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my favorite takeaways from the Lincoln chapter. Next up: how Theodore Roosevelt did crisis management! I can’t wait.

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