Leadership Lessons of Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the first president to die in office, but he was the first president to be assassinated. While credited as being the president who unified a divided country and cementing the notion of a single United States of America rather than a group of states united on the American continent, he came into office as one of the most controversial and divisive presidents. Yet, today, we revere him for his character, his wholesomeness, and his willingness to make personal sacrifices to get the job done.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky and, unlike William Henry Harrison, was a true frontiersman, having grown up in Kentucky and Indiana before moving to Illinois. During the era when we celebrated Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday, we’d hear stories of his life. Whether apocryphal or true, it didn’t matter, for they burned into our minds and hearts an ideal we were inspired to make as our own life’s work to continually strive for. The totality of Lincoln’s life offers many lessons. Here are just three:

Lesson #1: Honesty is the Best Policy
No, Abraham Lincoln didn’t say that, but we don’t call him “Honest Abe” for nothing. Indeed, in his book The Character and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln (Walker, Wise, and Company, 1864), author William M. Thayer says of Lincoln, “Ah! Never before did this country have such occasion to glorify HONESTY as now. Never before had the people so great reason to bless the Lord for an honest man, ‘the noblest work of God.’”

Lincoln earned his nickname as a young man, but I’ll let Thayer again tell the story (this from his book Abraham Lincoln – The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President, Hodder and Stoughton, 1893):

“One day he sold a bill of goods to Mrs. Duncan, amounting to two dollars and six cents. On running over his account again in the evening, he found that Mrs. Duncan paid him six cents too much. Immediately on closing the store and locking the door for the night he started for Mrs. Duncan’s house, more than two miles away, to carry the six cents to her. He slept better that night for the walk and the honesty.”

“On another occasion a woman came to the store late in the evening, just as he was closing it, for half a pound of tea. The tea was weighed and delivered, and he left for the night. On returning in the morning he noticed a four-ounce weight was on the scales, instead of an eight-ounce; and he knew at once that had given the customer a quarter of a pound instead of a half-pound. He weighed another quarter of a pound, closed the store, and delivered the tea to the woman, before commencing the labours of the day. Such acts of uprightness won universal confidence; and they formed the subject of conversation in many social gatherings.”

“It was in New Salem that Abraham won the soubriquet ‘Honest Abe,’ which he carried through life. The public confidence in his integrity and fairmindedness was such that he was usually chosen for umpire in all games and trials where two sides enlisted.”

There’s another oft-repeated story about Lincoln’s time as a store clerk. He’d work all day and use his money to buy books. Through those books, he taught himself many things. Eventually, they allowed him to become a lawyer. Now, he admitted there was a “popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest.” Later in life, and consistent with his (sometimes brutally) honest character, he suggested anyone wishing to become a lawyer to: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

Lesson #2: The Sizzle Sells the Steak
Lincoln displayed another characteristic working in that store. You see, he was new to town and had no friends. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be friendly to the store’s customers. Something deep down likely told him they’d keep coming back if they had a reason, and the best reason he could think of was a good story. That’s not surprising, considering Thomas Lincoln – Abe’s dad – was a great storyteller. This no doubt influenced the future president. Well, that and an exaggerated fondness for Aesop’s Fables. Those little morality tales not only shaped Lincoln’s character, but helped forge his flair for storytelling. Or maybe it was John Baldwin, the local blacksmith that a ten-year old Lincoln would steal away to, just for the smithy’s stories.

Whatever the sources, Lincoln is remembered as an entertaining raconteur. The earliest known account of his storytelling prowess occurred during his sister Sarah’s wedding party. His oral merrymaking was soon the highlight of all joyous celebrations in the immediate area. Thayer writes in The Pioneer Boy, “He was the only person who could furnish any literary production for the amusement of either the old or young. He was surcharged with wit and humour, also, and it was only necessary to touch him, on such occasions, and he emitted both in electric sparks. He could recite pages of poetry and prose, and somehow he could adapt them to any exigency that might arise. In short, his talents and unusual acquisitions made him the favourite in all social gatherings.”

At that store in New Salem, the unknown Lincoln knew how to attract customers. He would tell them stories. As he did, those strangers became fast friends. Lincoln perfected his storytelling prowess in the White House. That, and his artful use of humor in those stories, helped him weather the awful times of the Civil War. Indeed, many stories that come down to us today originate from his actions in that conflict. For example, one time he received a message about the capture by the rebels of a Union brigadier and a squad of cavalry near the Fairfax court house. Now, you might think he was alarmed by the near proximity of the activity (Fairfax is close to Washington DC). Instead, more concerned about the incompetence of the brigadier, he quipped, “I am very sorry to lose the horses. I can make a better brigadier any day; but those horses cost the government one hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece.”

Lesson #3: Winning isn’t Everything – It’s the Only Thing
Again, Lincoln didn’t say this, Vince Lombardi did (although a UCLA football coach said it first). Just because Lincoln relied on storytelling and humor to get by during the Civil War doesn’t mean he didn’t take winning seriously. There’s a famous story that shows this, and, again, it dates back to The War Between the States.

First: a diversion. Lincoln was a remarkably loyal and deeply religious man, although not in a denominational sense. As testament to this, no historian has ever found a credible account he was anything less than faithful to his wife. Though born a Baptist, he expressed no affiliation as an adult, although there is some evidence he may have made arrangements to join the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church just before he was assassinated. It should be clear, whatever the true nature of his religious beliefs, Lincoln was a man of character and of high moral integrity. He once quit defending a murderer once he became convinced the defendant was guilty. (His partner finished the trial and the man was acquitted, but Lincoln would not accept any payment for his services.)

This moral imperative becomes relevant as we relate this final story. Despite enormous tactical, technological, and logistical advantages, the North could not defeat the South. It was as if all the smart West Point graduates hailed from the South (thus joined the Confederates) while those on the lower end of the class rank came from the North. Lincoln went through more generals than the Buffalo Bills go through head coaches. Only one of the generals fired by Lincoln ranked as high as the South’s General Robert E. Lee – General George McClellan. Both men ranked number two. Unfortunately for Lincoln, both also were not too motivated about removing slavery. McClellan, a Democrat, constantly dragged his feet on the battlefield, frustrating Lincoln. General McDowell captured the president’s sentiments in his personal memorandum of January 10, 1862 in which he said of Lincoln, “To use his [Lincoln’s] own expression… ‘If General McClellan did not want to use the army, he would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something.’” (from the Pulitzer Prize winning book Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, Carl Sandburg, 1926).

Eventually Lincoln found his general in Ulysses S. Grant. On paper, Grant appears unexceptional (at #21, he ranked in the lower half of his West Point class). In person, he looked even worse. He always wore a private’s uniform on the field. And he drank. Notoriously. This became a political issue. It was thusly reported in the September 18, 1863 New York Herald: “After the failure of his first experimental explorations around Vicksburg, a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President and demanded the General’s removal, on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed Honest Old Abe, ‘you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?’ ‘We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?’ ‘Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.’”

Winning. It’s the only thing.

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