Abraham Lincoln was an American statesman and lawyer who served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 to 1865. Lincoln led the nation through the American Civil War, the country’s greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis. He succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy. His rise from humble beginnings to achieving the highest office in the land is a remarkable story. So, what can we learn from his leadership?
Lincoln understood that his people were his best source of information and the only way they would provide him with the intel he needed was if they trusted him. His path to trust was simple, he made himself accessible. He spent 75% of the day meeting with people. Lincoln even had an open-door policy over a century before the practice became mainstream within management circles. And yes, you have read that correctly, the President of the United States had an open-door policy. By having the trust of his people and meeting with them regularly, he would receive candid feedback and intel which allowed him to make better, more informed decisions. This is a key lesson for many modern managers who spend most of their time only meeting with their direct reports and rarely leave their own office.
Ask don’t demand
Despite being the president, he rarely gave direct orders. He consistently chose to ask or persuade rather than coerce or strong-arm people in to doing what he wanted. He said:
When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men, if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find by little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
Lincoln would consistently send letters to people stating, “I hope you could consider” or even bluntly state “this letter is in no sense an order”. By being accessible and likeable and asking rather than telling Lincoln made himself likeable. Those around him wanted to help him because they liked him. This is a far more sustainable approach to leadership and proven to create a culture of high engagement.
Praise others for success and take the blame for failure
This may come as a shock to many in modern corporate culture where often people look to avoid taking responsibility for negative outcomes and like to take credit for the good to advance their career, but Lincoln took the opposite approach. Not only did this satisfy Lincoln’s need for honesty, integrity and human dignity; it also gave his subordinates the correct perception that they were, in many ways, doing the leading, not Lincoln.
This has also been proven to be a great way to lead by modern standards. One of the reasons many large corporations are struggling to innovate and thrive in the digital age is because their workplace cultures stop it. Employees worry that if they fail, they will be blamed or worse, get fired. Conversely, Lincoln’s approach encourages innovation and risk taking because his people knew that if they failed, Lincoln would not blame them.
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