wisdom to win

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Abraham Lincoln LeadershipAbraham Lincoln Leadership


Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)


America’s greatest president (pictured right) who defeated the southern states in the American Civil War, and so ended slavery.

His assassination prompted the admiring poet, Walt Whitman (pictured right below), to write:

“Here, coffin, that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac”.Abraham Lincoln Leadership


For more detail see...

The Battle of Gettysburg in the History Highlights section.


Why was he a great leader?


1. Vision

He had a vision of a united, strong and ethical America, where everyone could prosper and live happily together.


2. Principle

He courageously stuck to his principles of democracy, freedom and equality for all Americans, which is why he:

  • strongly opposed slavery.
  • issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all slaves.

“Right makes might”, he said, i.e. leaders are more powerful and effective, if they do what’s right.

Do something with more good than evil in it, he believed, because almost everything is a mixture of the two.

“There are few things wholly evil or wholly good”, he said.

 Abraham Lincoln Leadership

3. Determination and courage

Inspired by intense ambition and a strong sense of duty, he overcame lots of failure and hardship before becoming president at the age of 60 including:

  • the poverty of his childhood in Kentucky (his family's log cabin there is pictured right) and Indiana .
  • depression. Abraham Lincoln Leadership 
  • three unsuccessful elections for the Senate.
  • the deaths of his mother, Nancy in 1818, sweetheart , Ann Rutledge, in 1835, and son, Willie (pictured right) in 1862.



4. Passive pragmatism

 Lincoln strongly believed in fate i.e. events being determined by some Higher Force. This has been called his “Doctrine of Necessity”.

He once said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”.Abraham Lincoln Leadership

According to his renowned biographer, David Herbert Donald (pictured right), this fatalism had vital consequences:

  • his compassion, tolerance and willingness to overlook other people's mistakes (see point 5).
  • reaction to events and other people's actions (leading to his reluctance to take the initiative with bold plans).
  • pragmatism - if one solution failed , he tried another one (resulting in his motto “My policy is to have no policy”).

He had ideals, but to achieve them he changed his policies, if necessary.

To gain the support of the slave states of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri during the Civil War, he initially emphasized the aim of preserving the union rather than the abolition of slavery.

He believed in slowly progressing towards his aims, avoiding bigotry and dogmatic inflexibility


5. Kind but tough

He was kind and magnanimous to people (even his enemies), because he believed this was the best way to win them over.

“With malice toward none, with charity to all”, he said in his Second Inaugural Address after victory in the Civil War.Abraham Lincoln Leadership

He rarely lost his temper with people but, if he did, he apologized with a kind letter or gesture.

But he could also be ruthless in pursuit of victory - for example:

  • firing incompetent generals (like George McClellan, pictured right above in 1861)
  • forcibly enforcing conscription in 1862. Abraham Lincoln Leadership 

 He survived the Civil War, despite his nervous exhaustion - compare his photographs in 1860 (pictured right) and 1865 (below).


6. Trust, humility and consent

People trusted and respected him, because of hisAbraham Lincoln Leadership

  • integrity (living by his principles and doing what he said).
  • deep humility. 
  • honesty, patience and empathy.


  • often visited his troops and understood ordinary people’s views, (keeping in contact with them and listening to them two hours every day in his “public opinion baths”).
  • intuitively read other people's feelings and intentions.

He also believed that good government needs people’s consent.


7. Lifelong learner and thinker

He was always striving to increase his knowledge through learning from:

  • other people  Abraham Lincoln Leadership 
  • his mistakes 
  • deep thought that wore ideas “thread-bare” ( as he put it)
  • training to become a lawyer (despite only one year’s formal education).


 Abraham Lincoln Leadership

8. Great communicator and motivator

He made brilliant speeches that inspired people to do great things.

His Gettysburg Address in 1863 (pictured right) is wonderful, because it was so clear and concise (only 272 words and three minutes long, after being re-written six times).

It also encouraged people to achieve worthy ideals like “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.


9. Consensus, change and creative decision makingAbraham Lincoln Leadership


  • made decisions at just the right time.
  • had a quiet self-confidence that enabled him to include his biggest political opponents in his War Cabinet (called a “team of rivals” by Lincoln's biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin).
  • inspired great results from his War Cabinet (particularly his Secretary of State, William Seward, pictured right above, and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton ,pictured right below)

He won people's respect by:Abraham Lincoln Leadership

  • allowing them to freely express their views without fear of retaliation.
  • sharing the blame for their failures.
  • never holding a grudge.
  • always accepting new and better ideas.
  • dealing with problems immediately, Abraham Lincoln Leadership 

Lincoln said that “people who stay in the present will remain in the past”.



10. Family, friends and relaxation

His Secretary of State, William Seward , and his wife, Mary (pictured right above , particularly helped and supported him in difficult times.Abraham Lincoln Leadership

He was also greatly influenced by his stepmother, Sarah (pictured right), who brought him up after the death of his mother, Nancy, in 1818.

His great sense of humour also relaxed him.



11. Image conscious

He made much of his poor upbringing and was the first president to use photographs to boost his image.



Key quotes on government and politics

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

Government of the people by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.


Key quote on change

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present and future.


Key quotes on ethics

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by avoiding it today.

There are few things wholly evil or wholly good


Key quote on business ethics

Care for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict the man before the dollar.


Key quotes on leadership

If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

My policy is to have no policy

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me


Key quotes on influencing people

Right is might

I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.


Key quote on love

I do not like the man. I must get to know him better.


Key quotes on success and time management

In the end it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

My great concern is not whether you have failed but whether you are content with your failure


Key quote on happiness

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.


Key quote on communication

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove doubt.


Key quote on religion

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.


Key quote on the past, present and future

People who stay in the present will remain in the past

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