Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. His leadership and management strategies before and during the American Civil War speak volumes of his success as the leader of a country. Donald Philips, in Lincoln on Leadership, describes some facets of Lincoln’s leadership skills and how managers today should imbibe these to be successful leaders.

1. Managing By Wandering Around

Abraham Lincoln loved to engage with his people and his staff at every level. Whether it was an inspection of state regiments passing through DC, his cabinet ministers, his soldiers in the Army, colleagues, supporters, or the general public, Lincoln took out time from his busy Presidential schedule to know the people around him. He would spend about three-quarters of his time meeting people and getting to know how they fit in the scheme of things.   

His approach to meeting and engaging people was like the new age management concept of MBWA (Managing By Walking Around). MBWA is a management tool that encourages managers to seek out and meet the people in all levels of their organization, spend more time with them, and hear their opinions. This time with employees can also be used to instill organization values in them.

Lincoln On Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald Phillips

2. Preach, Persuade And Reinforce

Abraham Lincoln had a loyal following of believers. His approach was persuasive and encouraging with a focus to reinforce what he preached.

A great example is his speech where he addressed and attacked the views of pro-slavery politicians, at a time when America was divided on the issue of slavery. He suggested that even most of the U.S. founding fathers had been against slavery. His well-crafted argument appealed to the faith the public had in the founding fathers, thus enabling him to win.

As a leader, he would use his persuasive skills to motivate his administration. He would make his orders sound like suggestions, making his team feel that they were an active part of an important decision too. New age managers need to be persuasive with their team to motivate them, yet they need to make them feel involved and important.

3. Communication And Silence

Communication is the master key to great leadership. Abraham Lincoln knew this very well and mastered effective communication. While he was a fantastic orator, his success as a great speaker was perhaps due to the fact that he used to prepare extremely well for his speeches, often editing right down to the moment before he took the stage. 

At the same time, his interpersonal communication skills were top-notch too. He would use imagery and stories to make his point. This enabled him to share complex pieces of information with people from different backgrounds, reducing the time it took from communicating an idea to its execution.

Finally, Lincoln understood the most important thing in communication – “silence“, which is at times the best way to communicate. This was evident in his re-election speech, where he chose to not say much and limited his public speaking campaign.

Similarly, it is essential that managers understand these three main facets of effective communication as well.

4. Taking Intelligent And Bold Action

At the brink of the American Civil War, Lincoln had to make a crucial decision of resupplying the military post at Fort Sumter, a decision he knew would result in him being the initiator of the conflict and endangering his political position in case he got blamed for starting the conflict. At the same time, leaving the military post insufficiently armed would have been dangerous too.

He weighed the pros and cons after thorough deliberation and decided to make a bold move of resupplying the military hold. His move resulted in the Confederates attacking first, but his decision to reinforce Fort Sumter has been seen as a good decision considering the first attack by the Confederate Army.

Like Lincoln, managers face situations where they need to take bold actions. Yet they need to ensure that their actions are supported by intelligent deliberation and are well thought out.

5. Hiring The Right People With Trial Periods

Abraham Lincoln knew he needed people who would take initiative on his team. His team comprised of people like General Ulysses S. Grant who was a self-motivated fighter and used aggressive strategies. Grant too, would prefer to surround himself with like-minded people, who were independent, knew their job, and took initiative.

Finding the right team member isn’t an easy job. That is why leaders use a technique called the honeymoon period or a trial period to assess staff. The decision to hire them is taken only after this honeymoon period. Abraham Lincoln believed in this strategy and utilized it to the fullest to weed out bad hires.

6. Using Technology and Innovation

Abraham Lincoln understood that the success of a leader also relies on how attuned he is to seek out technological advancement. He ensured that his administration was technologically savvy and he would personally seek out technology that would help the Union Army during the War.

He also ensured that once sought, any technological advancement would be implemented as soon as possible, even if, at times, he would need to override the opinions of his own generals when new weaponry was concerned. He also ensured that he was open to new ideas from his administration and encouraged them by creating an open platform for them to approach him with ideas.

Leaders have to stay open to using technological breakthroughs, seek innovation and be open to new ideas.

7. Balancing Change, Flexibility, Stability, And Consistency

Good leaders understand that all organizations undergo constant change due to changes in technology, moving workforce, evolving situations, etc. They also understand that they have to be flexible to adapt to these changes. At the same time, leaders should also create a strong consistent base for employees to function within the organization. A stable workforce with a strong foundation can withstand any type of change.

The necessity of maintaining a balance between change and consistency has been a constant battle for Abraham Lincoln. He saw the country and his Government through the worst time in history. The changes the country went through (abolishment of slavery, etc.) at the time were possible only because the leader of the government maintained consistency in his workings, dealings, and expectations.

8. Building Trust Via Forgiveness

Above all things, a leader should be forgiving by nature. A forgiving demeanor leads to the build-up of trust and faith. This was one of the most crucial values that Abraham Lincoln had. His forgiving nature instilled confidence amongst his people and encouraged them to take bolder action, knowing that he had their back.

At the same time, even enemies benefitted from Lincoln’s forgiving nature and it was this forgiveness that helped heal the widest rift amongst people in the history of the United States.

Key Learnings

Abraham Lincoln’s style of leadership brings out three main learnings and actions for leaders and managers – 

  1. Getting personally involved with the team
  2. Utilize the honeymoon period to get the right people on the team
  3. Master communication and know when to keep silent

Managers and leaders today should learn from Lincolns qualities of persuasion, communication skills, knowing and understanding his people, using innovation and technology, and most importantly having a humble and forgiving nature.