Lincoln On Leadership
Donald T. Phillips
Business Plus, 188 pages, $19.95
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller, Team Of Rivals, alerted us to the leadership wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, highlighting how he stitched together a coalition of his rivals when elected to the presidency. But a little-noted 1992 book, Lincoln On Leadership, by Donald T. Phillips, offers a more wide-ranging look at the many admirable leadership principles Honest Abe exemplified.
A bevy of books have been published in recent years chronicling the leadership styles of famous people, trying to garner lessons. Most of the books are quite forgettable. But nearly two decades after I read Lincoln On Leadership, the messages stick. It’s a combination of an astute leader and wonderful stories that make his leadership style come alive.
It opens with a reminder to get out of the office and circulate among the troops. During his four years as president, Lincoln spent most of his time among the troops, since they were the people who would get the job done.
“He virtually lived at the War Department’s telegraph office so he could gain access to key information for quick, timely decisions. He met with his generals and cabinet ministers in their homes, offices, and on the field, principally to provide direction and leadership. He toured the Navy Yard and the fortifications in and around Washington, and inspected new weaponry, all to obtain accurate knowledge of workings and abilities of the armed forces. This contact also gave him the first-hand knowledge he needed to make informed, accurate decisions without having to rely solely on the word of others,” Phillips writes.
He was a natural wanderer, a trait that first emerged in his days as a lawyer, where he would seek out as many facts as he could on the case before him. “Lincoln realized that people were a major source of information and that to be a good leader he had to stay close to them,” Phillips notes.
He tried to see as many people as often as he possibly could. Indeed, his personal secretaries estimated that he spent 75 percent of his time meeting with people, always finding time for folks who called on him. “To this extent, he ran the White House much as he had the law office in Springfield, where the door was always open and anyone who wanted to come in and talk was welcome,” Phillips reports. Sometimes a secretary would inform a visitor the president was busy, and that individual should come back another time, only to have Lincoln come out of his office and insist on seeing the person then.
But the busy atmosphere in his office shouldn’t obscure us from a basic point: Lincoln generally insisted on going to see other people rather than summoning them to him. He liked to meet with his cabinet ministers in their office, rather than his, or some other relaxed, less pressure-packed environment. “The most frequently visited cabinet member was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Nearly every day Lincoln walked from the White House to Stanton’s office at the War Department about a block away. Sometimes during critical battles Lincoln made the trek two or three times a day, and once in a while he even spent the night in the telegraph office waiting for dispatches from the field,” Phillips writes.
We might wonder what he would have done if he lived in an age of smart phones and email, but it is sobering to think about his propensity for focusing on the main challenge and getting out and meeting the appropriate subordinates on their turf.
As Goodwin highlighted with her book, Lincoln gained the trust and respect of his subordinates, building strong alliances on both personal and professional levels. Phillips notes he wanted his subordinates “to get to know him, so that they would know how he would respond in any given situation, what he wanted, demanded, and needed. If they knew what he would do, they could make their own decisions without asking him for direction, thereby avoiding delay and inaction.”
He listened. He shared jokes. He simply tried to spend time with his subordinates. That didn’t work, unfortunately, with George McClellan, the young general he promoted to general in chief, with some trepidation. Lincoln visited him nearly every day for the first few weeks of his command, making small talk or telling an amusing story, and broadly discussing strategy. But when McClellan was slow to act against the enemy, Lincoln became more directive, and McClellan became abusive and disrespectful.
One night, Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of State William Seward and George Hay, one of the president’s personal secretaries, called on McClellan at his house to learn he was out at a wedding. They waited for his return. But when he returned home and learned Lincoln was present, the general marched past the parlour where the guests were seated and went upstairs to bed. Seward and Hay were outraged, but Lincoln kept his calm, telling Hay that it was “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” Lincoln continued to treat McClellan with dignity, although he began to now summon him more frequently to the White House and eventually decided to dismiss him when he couldn’t prod the general to take the war to the enemy.
McClelland was a failure in leadership because he had an “I can do it all” attitude. Phillips observes that “Lincoln was smart enough to know that he could not do it all. Each of his generals had to be his own man. If each was a leader in his own right, if each could take responsibility, authority, and ownership of his assigned area of the war, then Lincoln would, in essence, have as many commanders-in-chief as he had generals. And then he would be able to mount a most formidable onslaught against the South, one that could not possibly be overcome.”
His leadership approach was one of persuasion rather than coercion. He would write long letters to his generals, with a friendly parental style, offering guidance. Or he would tell stories.
When his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, declined to issue interest-bearing currency to support the war effort, because he believed it was unconstitutional, Lincoln told him a story of an Italian captain who ran his vessel on a rock and knocked a hole in the bottom. The captain had his men simultaneously pumping and praying before a statute of the Virgin on the bow of the ship, but the leak was gaining on them. It appeared the boat would go down. The captain, in a fit of rage at their prayers not being answered, grabbed the figure of the Virgin and threw it overboard. Suddenly the leak stopped, and they could pump the water out. When they reached shore, they found the statue of the Virgin stuck, head first, in the hole.
Chase, understandably, couldn’t understand how that applied to their situation. “Why Chase, I don’t intend precisely to throw the Virgin Mary overboard, and by that I mean the constitution, but I will stick it in the hole if I can,” Lincoln replied, noting that the rebels were violating the constitution to destroy the Union and he would violate the constitution, if necessary, to save the Union.
Lincoln’s strength of character is familiar to us. He exemplified honesty and integrity. He never acted out of vengeance or spite, as when Gen. McClellan ignored him that evening. He had the courage to handle unjust criticism. He was called probably every name imaginable by the press of the day, from third-rate lawyer to grotesque baboon, but relied on doing his best in his job to overcome opposition.
Phillips also says he was a master of paradox, an important leadership facet:
- He was charismatic yet unassuming.
- He was consistent yet flexible.
- He was a victim of vast amounts of slander and malice, yet h