Lessons From Lincoln for Every Business Leader

Nov 9, 2012

David Strathairn stars opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in " Lincoln" in this undated handout photo released to the media on Nov. 8, 2012. David James/DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox via Bloomberg.

Walt Whitman called Abraham Lincoln, “the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.”

In the twenty-first century, Lincoln’s grandness has only grown as part of our national narrative. When the great American experiment was falling apart during the Civil War, it was Lincoln who united the country. His ability to lead, marked by honesty, empathy, and humor, is the stuff of legend. For business owners and supervisors, Lincoln's turn in office reveals three lessons that transcend occupation and time.

Hire the Best Person for the Job: "No man resolved to make the most of himself has time to waste on personal contention."
Lincoln famously maintained a “team of rivals,” popularized by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s novel of the same name. He put aside ego and past injustices for the good of the country. After being insulted by Edwin Stanton in a law case, he appointed him his Secretary of War. Lincoln saw value in choosing the best candidate, not the best candidate for political convenience. His description of cabinet selection holds true today, whether staffing the White House or the firehouse: “I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their service." 

Empathize With Your Employees: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
Lincoln is credited with uncanny emotional intelligence. He understood people and consistently showed forgiveness and humanity. When rumors of General Ulysses S. Grant's drinking surfaced, Lincoln investigated Grant's performance in the field and concluded that based on the general's exemplary record, if he could find Grant's preferred brand of whiskey, he would distribute it at once to all his generals. Lincoln understood that leaders value context and that reactionary judgments are the fastest way to make poor decisions.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
Lincoln understood the importance of failure in the learning process, his own and others. He once said, "Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." There is value to failure, however spectacular, if something is learned. Lincoln lost jobs, political races, and even went bankrupt in a business venture. But he never gave up. And America as we know it wouldn't exist if he had stopped trying. 

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opens in select theaters today and widely November 16. Leaders of all kinds should consider a front row seat.

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