Abraham Lincoln Leadership
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
America’s greatest president (pictured right) who defeated the southern states in the American Civil War, and so
His assassination prompted the admiring poet, Walt Whitman (pictured right below), to
“Here, coffin, that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac”.
For more detail see...
of Gettysburg in the History Highlights section.
Why was he a great
He had a vision of a united, strong and ethical America, where everyone could prosper and live
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
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.
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 .
- 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
He once said, “I claim not to
have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”.
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
- 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.
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.
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 his
- integrity (living by his principles and doing what he said).
- 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
- deep thought that wore ideas “thread-bare” ( as he put it)
- training to become a lawyer (despite only one year’s formal education).
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 making
- 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
- inspired great results from his War Cabinet (particularly his Secretary of State, William
Seward, pictured right above, and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton ,pictured
He won people's respect by:
- allowing them to freely express their views without fear of retaliation.
- sharing the blame for their failures.
- always accepting new and better ideas.
- dealing with problems immediately,
Lincoln said that “people who stay in the present will remain in the past”.
friends and relaxation
His Secretary of State, William Seward , and his wife,
Mary (pictured right above , particularly helped and supported him
in difficult times.
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
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
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
Care for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict the man before the dollar.
Key quotes on
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
Right is might
I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.
Key quote on
I do not like the man. I must get to know him better.
Key quotes on success and time
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
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Key quote on
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove doubt.
Key quote on
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
People who stay in the present will remain in the past