Team Of Rivals: Lessons From Abe Lincoln

May 08, 2018 1 Min Read

Unusual leadership strategies to forge the best path for progress


In recent years, we’ve experienced one of the most divisive periods in the world of politics. From the Brexit vote to the US elections in 2016, debate has sparked intense conflict on all sides of the argument.

At the time of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, I was a political journalist who saw first-hand the futility of modern political “debate.” It was sad to see many people professing love for their country and yet uninterested in listening to those with different views.

While it’s understandable that people should have strong opinions on important issues, it’s often the case that people spend much of their time focusing on what’s wrong in their eyes and who’s to blame. Invariably, this approach makes for little progress.

As I was reporting on the Scottish referendum campaigns, one thought kept coming to mind: If all of these people truly love their country, why are they fighting among themselves instead of working together to find the best way forward? After all, aren’t we all part of the same nation?

Turning critics into allies 

One great leader who knew the transformative power of collaboration was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.

In her Pulitzer-winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the complexity of Lincoln’s presidency, the tumultuous relationships that existed within it, and how he brought it all together for the good of the nation.

On Nov 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States. During the Republican nomination campaign, some of his fiercest critics ran against him including Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward.

In a remarkable example of leadership, Lincoln enrolled these men in his cabinet as Attorney General, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State respectively.

Lincoln’s leadership was so effective that he was able, as Goodwin describes it, to “bring disgruntled opponents together to create the most unusual cabinet in history.”

Abraham Lincoln was someone who was intent on bringing the best people together to govern the country. As a leader, he paid no attention to personal differences or past slights that he received. He loathed to hold a grudge.

One notable inclusion to his cabinet was Edwin Stanton, he became Lincoln’s Secretary of War. In their previous legal careers, the two men had locked horns and Stanton was initially disdainful of his new boss. Nevertheless, Lincoln knew that Stanton had the relentless, disciplined mind-set that was needed to balance out the President’s openness and leniency.

This was one of the key leadership qualities explored in Team of Rivals – Lincoln wasn’t afraid to include people in his cabinet who were ambitious and egotistic. In fact, these were the kinds of people with whom he surrounded himself with.

As a leader, it can be tempting to have an inner circle of ‘Yes’ men. However, having people who aren’t afraid to question your motives, or your assumptions, can ultimately lead to greater outcomes as ideas are thrashed out freely.

Image | pixabay

LISTEN: Abraham Lincoln “From Failed Leader To Great President”

Collaborate, not cross swords

When people within the world of politics (and indeed business) are focused on criticising each other and their respective ideas, heels are simply dug deeper into the ground and no one makes any progress at all.

In some of the meetings I’ve attended in the past, they soon turned into squabbles that lost sight of their original purpose – to benefit the many whose number were greater than the group of people gathered.

It’s the simplest thing in the world to criticise decision-makers such as chief executive officers, senior managers, politicians and other authorities. We can all be the best manager from a safe distance – so long as we’re not faced with the challenges and dilemmas of a leader, it’s an easy life being a critic.

Certainly, it’s less challenging to wax lyrical about what we’re against than to say what we’re for, and how exactly we’d bring about whatever solutions we propose.

When Abraham Lincoln brought his unusual cabinet together, it was a statement of intent that his presidency would be one that put the needs and interests of the country ahead of his own personal feelings and ambitions.

He knew, for example, that he needed strong cabinet members to help him pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which would see slavery abolished in America.

As a leader, Abraham Lincoln paid no attention to personal differences or past slights that he received. He loathed to hold a grudge.

For months, Lincoln’s cabinet debated whether abolition was the right thing to do, and in the end, he made his decision to issue the historic Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 – the precursor to the 13th Amendment.

Despite some of his cabinet disagreeing with his decision, Lincoln knew that, in the end, the buck stopped with him as president to make the final decision.

Regardless of their views, Lincoln’s team felt that their views had been heard and thoroughly considered before he made his decision, and this tendency was one that garnered a lot of respect for the president.

Abraham Lincoln’s preference for collaboration over competition was a trait that would win over even those former rivals who ran against him in 1860.

William H. Seward was deeply critical of Lincoln’s views prior to joining his cabinet and yet, in a letter written to his wife two months after his appointment, Seward described Lincoln as being like someone he had never known.

Like many of the cabinet members, Seward started off thinking Lincoln was unimpressive before concluding that he was in the presence of a truly great leader.

Understand their POV 

One of the most poignant lessons I took from reading Team of Rivals was that it’s easy to criticise our opponents mainly because we never take the trouble to know them and to genuinely try to understand their views.

According to our own minds, we all know the “right way” to do things, but doing the right thing is seldom without the kind of complexity and nuance that requires the team effort and hard work it takes to bring about.

Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” He also observed that a country is rarely torn apart from the outside, but rather by the conflicts and divisions that exist between a nation’s people.

It takes a diverse set of capabilities

In Team of Rivals, Goodwin elaborates on these qualities of Lincoln, “(He) understood the importance, as one delegate put it, of integrating ‘all the elements of the Republican party – including the impracticable, the Pharisees, the better-than-thou declaimers, the long-haired men and the short-haired women.’”

As a leader, it can be tempting to have an inner circle of “Yes” men. However, having people who aren’t afraid to question your motives, or your assumptions, can ultimately lead to greater outcomes as ideas are thrashed out freely.

In other words, Lincoln was a man who believed that it took no less than everyone coming together and striving together if the nation was to have any hope of thriving socially and economically.

When we disregard our opponents, we rob ourselves of valuable perspectives that can highlight the flaws in our own thinking and reveal insights that we never previously considered.

As to why we ignore the merits of those who disagree with us, we do it because it’s easy to distance ourselves from “the other.” It takes enormous courage to consider different views to our own, but it’s from here that real progress and growth can begin to turn everyone’s fortunes around for the better and greater good.



Sandy Clarke is a freelance writer who previously spent 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He loves to read accounts of historic leadership and the lessons that can be applied to today’s world. To connect with Sandy, find him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @RealSClarke


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