Abraham Lincoln’s principles of leadership

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By Harry S. Dennis III, for SBT

TEC speaker Gene Griessman is well-known for his splendid stage soliloquies about the life and character of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. What is less known is that Griessman is a passionate student of Lincoln’s leadership style.
After all, Lincoln was a CEO in truly turbulent times. And when it came to exercising effective leadership, he had to work hard at it, as he readily admitted. Let’s examine his principles and ask ourselves as CEOs: does the shoe fit 140 years laterω
A lifelong learner
Lincoln read voraciously. Everything from Euclidian geometry to tomes on military strategy, as verified by Library of Congress historical records. His quotations provoked by his quest for lifelong learning are legendary, such as "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."
Coincidentally, a founding precept of TEC nearly 48 years ago was that successful CEOs commit to a lifetime of learning to self-improve.

A methodical and analytical mind
Griessman notes that Lincoln clearly understood that "thinking hard is hard." As Lincoln put it, "I’m never happy with an idea until I have bounded it North, bounded it South, bounded it East, and bounded it West."
Today’s CEO has an abundance of hard and soft tools to enable crisp analyses of virtually any situation. Like Lincoln, he or she as leader must make the call to let a thorough analysis lead naturally to an effective business decision.

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Abundant intellectual curiosity
Today we would say that Lincoln was truly anal. He was never satisfied with hearsay or surface information. He wanted details. He is one of the few U.S. presidents to read scientific books on a regular basis, and he is the only American president to hold a patent.
He used a novel tool, "public opinion baths," where his constituencies (today, our customers, our employees) could line up without regard to rank or importance to air their views with him. When this practice was challenged by his generals and Cabinet officers as a waste of time, he replied it helped avoid becoming insulated from the real world.

Griessman states that Lincoln was notorious for using a lot of "no’s" on the way to a "yes." His subordinates were often frustrated, especially his generals. What they often didn’t comprehend was that he was a master of bouncing strategic issues back and forth against tactical issues. He, in other words, did what good CEOs do – see the big picture on the macro level, while testing "incremental micros" on the tactical level.

Decisive commander
We are all aware of the decision plague that is sometimes referred to as "paralysis of analysis." Lincoln may have been borderline here, but the fact remains that Lincoln did not have difficulty making a decision.
This was no more evident than when he decisively declared that the Union could not be allowed to disintegrate – that a separate confederacy would never be viable in an otherwise undivided nation.
His quote regarding evil makes the point: "The true rule in determining whether to accept or reject anything is not in whether it has any evil in it, or whether it has more of evil than of good. There are few things wholly good or wholly evil. Almost anything is a mixture of the two, so our judgment is required in determining the preponderance between them."

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Paragon of willpower
Lincoln believed that once he as CEO made the decision, that he couldn’t allow himself to be second-guessed by anyone. Hence, he was inclined to implementation with blinding speed.

Communicator par excellance
He mastered three communication forms: (a) the one-on-one, (b) the one-to-many and (c) written discourse. He memorized Shakespeare, recited Mac Beth verbatim, and could lace appropriate lines into his comments, whether in the audience of one or the audience of one hundred.
CEOs who can sprinkle the thinking of great CEOs, world leaders, artists, etc., in their own dialog, whether one-to-one, one-to-many, or in writing stand heads above their contemporaries who never even try.

Avoiding personal quarrels
Lincoln was bashed time and again, most notably, by his Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton, who privately referred to him as a despicable "gorilla and imbecile." But the president always had the personal fortitude to not personalize the opposition.
Phil Jackson was told recently that Kobe Bryant did not like him. Jackson acknowledged same, but said, "We have the utmost professional respect for one another." Lincoln’s view was that an enemy may agree with you, but hate you. He worked to avoid turning opponents into enemies.
His belief was that as CEO, you should never turn an argument into a quarrel. Your opponent on the other side of the issue could very well be your ally on the next one.

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Master delegator
It took awhile, but Lincoln learned that you don’t fire a general after just one mistake. Let the learning curve work. Mistakes translated into leadership progress are the best mistakes of all. Likewise, he built his cabinet around individuals with strong executive experience, to compensate for the fact that he had no such experience.

Protector of his inner spirit
The final principle can be summarized in the manner by which Lincoln chose to protect himself: (a) living one day at a time; (b) collecting jokes and telling funny stories; (c) attending theater; (d) reading recreationally; and (e) making peace with himself.
None of us, most likely, will ever be a "Lincoln." Until next month, however, here’s to selecting a tidbit from his incredible legacy to "Lincolnize" ourselves and our companies. There is something in him, I trust, for all of us.

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of TEC (The Executive Committee) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at 262-821-3340.

March 19, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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