Leadership Lessons from Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is generally recognized as one of the greatest Presidents in United States history. Reviewing his leadership style offers many great leadership lessons from which we can all learn. Here are nine leadership attributes from the life of Lincoln:

  1. He never stopped learning. Lincoln was a voracious reader. He was regularly seen with a book tucked under his arm. When he found a notable quote, he would immediately write it down and commit it to memory. He spent hours with the Bible, law books and classics like Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress.


  1. Failure did not deter him. Lincoln was a classic failure if ever there was one. Nine times he failed in his bid for an elected or appointed office. He failed in business at least twice and went bankrupt. In 1858, he failed in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Undeterred, he was elected President two years later.
  1. He built his team with a collaborative spirit. As president-elect, Lincoln systematically began to build a network of allies who would provide him with the leadership, experience and political clout to govern a deeply divided nation at the time of its darkest crisis. Lincoln formed a cabinet that included his three major republican rivals. Four others came from the free soil and democratic parties.
  1. He allowed his team a great deal of autonomy. Once war erupted, Lincoln was slow to take control of the military.     Recognizing his lack of military expertise, Lincoln allowed his generals the freedom to manage the war. However….
  1. He held people accountable. This is where many leaders fall short. Allowing people freedom to operate does not mean the leader abdicates authority. In Lincoln’s case, following a series of failures and defeats in the Civil War, he began to assert himself. Lincoln changed generals several times until he found a general in chief he could trust who could finish off the war—Ulysses Grant.
  1. He was a master communicator. Lincoln was a gifted writer. He understood that the newspapers of his day held great sway over public opinion. He crafted a strategy of communicating his position to the American people by writing letters—or position papers- and sending them to the newspapers.       Lincoln’s communication strategy became a major reason why he was re-elected in 1864. Despite misgivings about his policies, the American people had come to like and trust Abraham Lincoln.
  1. He stuck to his values and beliefs. This was most evident in the way Lincoln stubbornly pushed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln insisted on advancing the cause of freedom from slavery, despite the fact that he ran the risk of states in the Union seceding and dramatically tipping the balance of power in the war. All of his advisors, including his wife, and even Lincoln himself believed that he if continued to advocate for the Emancipation, he would not be re-elected. He endured, won the battle and the war.
  1. He exhibited a spirit of reconciliation. As the war drew near a close and Union victory became apparent, Lincoln recognized that it was time to heal the wounds of war. Despite the urging of many in the army and the government, Lincoln shifted his second inaugural address to a startling conclusion, “With malice towards none, with charity to all..” Lincoln was calling on the nation to move into a new era—an era not filled with retribution, but one filled with forgiveness and reconciliation.
  1. He left a legacy. Lincoln’s leadership left an indelible impression on his contemporaries and throughout history. Following his last meeting with the President, shortly before Lincoln was assassinated, General William Sherman wrote: “Of all the men I have met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”

Abraham Lincoln combined strong foundational values, a character of great integrity, compassion for his fellow man, and a determined willingness to pursue what he knew in his heart was the right thing—no matter what the cost. We can all use a little more Abe Lincoln in our life as leaders.