Lincoln’s Lessons on Leading in Challenging Times
Mar 28, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins
We have, as they say, been blessed to live in challenging times.
Yet more and more of the leaders I work with these days find it increasingly difficult to keep generating opportunities in the midst of a prolonged period of crisis. It doesn’t look like we’re going to see the end of these challenges soon. And the cumulative effects of these simultaneous challenges are generating spin-offs of their own.
As fear becomes more of a driver in our conversations, relationships and alliances are dissolving. A sense of common ground is eroding in our organizations and communities. There is increasing pressure for immediate and unilateral action on multiple fronts.
Lincoln was a leader during an unprecedented time. He built upon his innate leadership characteristics and developed skills in critical thinking, reasoning, and storytelling to complement his natural gifts. His leadership legacy is like no other.
The executives I work with have also been through an unprecedented time these past two years. And many are wondering how history will view their own leadership legacy.
The following article, “Leading in Times of Crisis: Lincoln’s Lessons” by Craig Collins of Orion International, offers insights that are as true and relevant today as they were in the 1860s.
I invite you to pay particular attention to Lincoln’s core leadership qualities: 1) a clear sense of purpose; 2) a realistic sense of what is possible now; 3) humility; 4) self-assurance; 5) detached analytical thinking; and 6) a belief in the goodness of people.
Feel free to use and share this article widely.
PS. History nerds will appreciate the chronology of Lincoln’s presidency at the end of the article. Busy folks can skip it.
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)
- The movie Lincoln directed and produced by Steven Spielberg (2012)
Leading in Times of Crisis: Lessons from Lincoln
By Craig Collins
More than eighteen months have passed since the world was swept into economic crisis. While many countries and organizations still struggle to deal with its impact, others feel that the worst is behind us. We read many analyses of what went wrong in financial regulation, the behaviour of consumers, assumptions about risk in the financial world and the structure of performance incentives. We have not yet, however, heard much about the lessons to be learned from the behaviour of leaders in the political and business worlds during the crisis. In fact, too little time has passed to gain the historical perspective needed for such an analysis.
To find relevant lessons in crisis leadership, however, we can look back to an earlier event on which we do now have an adequate historical perspective. Among the most serious crises ever facing a leader was the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and the leader in question was Abraham Lincoln (see Appendix – Chronology of Lincoln’s Presidency). Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb book Team of Rivals provides just such an analysis. The observations which follow are drawn primarily from this work.
From Goodwin’s study, we can see:
- How leading in a crisis differs fundamentally from leading change, even dramatic change
- The attributes that enabled Lincoln to continue to provide leadership in a crisis, rather than be overwhelmed by it
- Which of these attributes were inherent in Lincoln’s character
- Which of these attributes he mindfully developed in the course of his career
- How today’s leaders can best prepare themselves to lead successfully in a time of crisis.
Six key leadership attributes enabled Lincoln to provide strong leadership throughout four years of unbroken crisis:
- Clear sense of purpose
- Realistic sense of what is possible now
- Detached, analytical thinking
- Belief in the goodness of people.
Lincoln’s Unlikely Path to the White House
Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely president and even an improbable nominee within his own Republican party. In 1860, he was 51 years old and had been unsuccessful in four of five attempts to secure an elected office at the national level. In the first round of voting for his party’s presidential nominations, he fell far behind the leader and expected nominee, the distinguished New York Senator William Henry Seward. His eventual selection by a narrow margin owed much to the fact that two other more prominent candidates, Senator Seward and Governor Salmon Chase of Ohio, had developed not only strong supporters but also determined enemies who effectively prevented their nomination. Lincoln had fewer supporters but also fewer enemies, and his supporters were devoted and untiring.
During the election campaign, both major parties had split along North-South lines over the volatile issue of slavery, so there were four candidates in the general election. Little known on the national stage, Lincoln was ridiculed in the press as a “third-rate Western Lawyer” (p. 257). Rejecting Seward and Chase, “who are statesmen and able men,” the Republicans “take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar” (p. 257). To have any chance of election, Lincoln had to convince the better known rivals he had just defeated for his party’s nomination not only to support him but to actively campaign on his behalf. To the astonishment of many, he succeeded. As a result of their extraordinary efforts and his own exceptional understanding of politics, Lincoln won by a majority in a field of four candidates.
Acknowledging his own very limited experience at the national level and his corresponding lack of stature in the public mind, Lincoln immediately offered key cabinet offices to the better known rivals he had defeated for his party’s nomination: Seward, Chase and Edward Bates. They saw themselves as far better qualified than Lincoln for the presidency and resented defeat at his hands. Lincoln’s invitation to his former rivals was unexpected, and his success at winning them over was even more so. In hindsight, a cornerstone of his ability to survive the coming catastrophe was his ability to mobilize and manage this fractious but enormously talented group, at least one of whom (Chase) would continue to undermine him politically while serving in his cabinet.
Crisis Reactions – Leadership Challenges
Some have argued that leadership in times of crisis is simply a stronger version of leading people through change. In Lincoln’s situation, however, this was not the case. The challenges confronting Lincoln were not only more extreme than those posed by situations of rapid change. Some, at least, were altogether different. In times of change, much time and energy must be focused on convincing others of the need for change and overcoming resistance. In a crisis, in contrast, there is broad agreement that the status quo no longer exists. The focus is no longer on past vs. future but on competing versions of the future alternating with assignment of blame for the past.
Challenges which further complicate the task of leaders in times of crisis include the following:
- Emotions interfering with reasoning ability
- Splintering of relationships and alliances
- Fear as a driver and blame as a focus
- Pressure building for immediate, unilateral action, bypassing normal debate and discussion
- Several constants changing to variables at the same time
- Necessity of initiating action on several fronts before the impact of any one can be evaluated
- Self-interest or factional interest eroding the sense of community and common ground
- Oscillation between exaggerated fears and denial.
The epoch of the American Civil War illustrates vividly how a crisis shakes the very foundations on which leadership rests in normal times.
Lincoln as a Model for Crisis Leadership
What enabled Lincoln to lead people through this crisis which threatened the very existence of the nation?
1. CLEAR SENSE OF PURPOSE
Long before the Civil War, Lincoln had developed a clear sense of his leadership purpose. He saw democracy as a still unproven form of government on the world stage. Many in Europe were skeptical of the notion that a nation could be effectively governed by popularly elected representatives. The political withdrawal of a group of dissatisfied states would prove the skeptics correct.
Lincoln believed deeply in “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” His clear and unshakeable purpose was to prevent the political withdrawal of the Southern states—even though it was necessary to resort to war to do so—in order to deal with slavery and other divisive issues in a political framework and validate the democratic form of government. This sense of purpose informed Lincoln’s most difficult decisions. It did not make them any less emotionally wrenching, but it did enable him to steer a remarkably consistent course throughout his tenure as president and assisted him to rise above the clamor of clashing demands on all sides. His clarity of purpose enabled Lincoln to take risks that would be untenable in less turbulent times and to maintain a sense of urgency in the midst of confusion.
2. REALISTIC SENSE OF WHAT IS POSSIBLE NOW
While Lincoln’s clear sense of purpose served as a compass needle at the strategic level, at the tactical level he acted more like a river flowing to the sea, sometimes left, sometimes right as needed to avoid obstacles, but always towards the goal.
He maintained a realistic sense of what is possible now and what is not yet possible. This came in part from his own leadership instincts but also from his practice of drawing on very diverse sources of information. Always suspicious that advisors to the powerful present the situation in an overly optimistic light, Lincoln engaged often and eagerly with his opponents and even enemies in order to better understand their thinking and sometimes, over time, to win them over. He was an exceptional listener and generally tried to understand and explore his opponents’ points of view and reasoning before stating his own.
Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion. “With public sentiment,” Lincoln noted, “nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” (p. 206) John Forney, a contemporary journalist, felt Lincoln to be “the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.” (p. 572)
These apparently opposite but, in fact, counterbalancing skills—an unshakeable sense of purpose and a clear sense of what is possible now—enabled Lincoln to be flexible and even opportunistic in the short term while always moving inexorably toward his strategic goal. They helped him to know when to negotiate and when to stand fast.
Even by the standards of the American frontier, Lincoln came from extremely humble circumstances. Born into poverty, he attended less than one year of school and was largely self-educated. From this background, he drew empathy with the struggles of the common man and a belief in the goodness of human nature.
His opponents ridiculed him as an ignorant frontiersman. Yet, long before he became president, he had read Shakespeare’s plays and often quoted Shakespeare, Byron and Browning from memory. Numerous setbacks in his professional career and personal life reinforced his sense of humility. However, Lincoln’s deep humility was more than the lesson of experience; it was his worldview. Perhaps it was also reinforced by his strong sense of purpose. Achieving that purpose outweighed the need to gratify his ego. As a leader, Lincoln’s humility enabled him to defer readily to those with more talent, needed skills, power and bigger egos while still maintaining his position as leader.
The setbacks and fierce criticism Lincoln endured did lead to discouragement and even depression. Yet, paradoxically, they also strengthened his self-assurance. As he emerged from each reversal with his sense of purpose intact (though often achingly distant), he found his energy renewed and his commitment strengthened.
His self-assurance enabled Lincoln, once he had considered the issues and listened to all opinions, to act on many occasions against the advice of his cabinet and against public opinion. Sometimes he did so in spite of doubts that others would support his decision and with men’s lives and fortunes hanging in the balance.
Lincoln assumed the presidency surrounded by a cabinet of strong personalities with experience and reputations far exceeding his own. Yet his self-assurance—buttressed by his sense of purpose and bounded by his humility—enabled him to assert control and eventually to win the loyalty, respect and, sometimes, friendships of those who initially saw themselves as his opponents and sometimes his intellectual and political superiors. Self-assurance also enabled him to act simultaneously on multiple fronts in the face of enormous uncertainty.
Together, these apparently contradictory characteristics marked Lincoln’s leadership style. He realized his own falibility and valued the opinions of others (including opponents), yet was not dismayed by the criticism he encountered in the process. He referred to his meetings with the public as “public opinion baths which serve to renew me in a clear and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprang, and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect, as a whole, is renovating and invigorating to my perception of responsibility and duty.” (p. 598) When a cabinet member or general came under public blame for a mistake or defeat, Lincoln consistently defended the person in question and publicly accepted responsibility for the failure.
As a leader, Lincoln combined two vastly different persona: he was a cool, dispassionate, incisive thinker. At the same time, he was a warm, caring, empathetic leader with deep faith in human goodness.
5. DETACHED, ANALYTICAL THINKING
While most lawyers of his era learned their trade through apprenticeship to a practicing attorney, Lincoln could not afford this luxury. He read law books at night after a full day’s work and painstakingly mastered the logic on which the practice of law rests. As he studied and practiced law, Lincoln sharpened his skills in reasoning and critical thinking. During his political career, he was often able to persuade others by the sharpness of his analysis and the clarity of his thinking.
In an attempt to address the issue of slavery in new territories, the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act would effectively allow slaveholding in areas where it was previously forbidden. At the 1854 Illinois State Fair, Senator Stephen Douglas (later Lincoln’s opponent in the 1860 presidential election) delivered a stirring three-hour speech in which he defended the Act in the name of self-government in each state and territory. Although Douglas’ reputation far exceeded his own, Lincoln promptly announced that he would rebut Douglas’ speech the following day.
Before making up his mind about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln spent hours of research in the State Library. As his law partner William Herndon observed, Lincoln never took a stand until he knew an issue “inside and outside, upside and downside.” (p. 164)
During his three-hour rebuttal before a large audience, Lincoln reached back to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 (which ended the transatlantic slave trade), and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which limited the spread of slavery within the US). The Constitution, he argued, made no reference to the institution of slavery and, therefore, accepted the issue as an existing fact without condoning it. He turned Douglas’ argument of self-government on its head by arguing that, according to the Declaration of Independence, self-government was the right of all and, therefore, also of those currently held as slaves. He insisted that, “no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.” (p. 167) Lincoln asserted that, in implementing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and the Missouri Compromise, the South had recognized the limitation and eventual extinction of slavery (as some slaveholders had subsequently demonstrated by freeing more than 400,000 slaves at great personal expense).
Commenting on the speech, one newspaper found Lincoln’s presentation of the facts “methodical” and the overall effect “most effective.” (p. 165) Even the editors of an opposition newspaper acknowledged that they had “never read or heard a stronger anti-Nebraska speech.” (p. 169)
The logic and clarity of this speech persuaded many and increased Lincoln’s profile as a serious politician.
6. BELIEF IN THE GOODNESS OF PEOPLE
In spite of a life filled with examples to the contrary, Lincoln believed deeply in the innate goodness of people and their capacity to rise to the occasion. As a young lawyer, he traveled with a judge and other lawyers from town to town and spent many evenings in their company. He learned to connect with people, to understand them, to overlook or forgive their shortcomings, and to make them feel understood and valued. His endless supply of stories drew others to him and enabled him to make serious points in light-hearted and non-judgmental ways and to disarm his critics. As President, when public opinion was not ready to support a critical initiative, he did not lash out at others. Rather, he saw it as his role to patiently educate public opinion before announcing an initiative in order to gain sufficient support to ensure its success. Even when the stakes were high, it was characteristic of Lincoln to give people the benefit of the doubt. In success, he shared credit widely. In failure, he stepped forward to accept public blame—even when it lay elsewhere. In protecting the reputations of others, he regularly transformed opponents into grateful allies. Lincoln was consistently magnanimous in victory, yet gracious in defeat.
Lincoln was even able to view slave owners with empathy, arguing that “they are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up . . . When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.” (p. 167)
At first glance, it might seem that Lincoln embodies the largely discredited trait theory of leadership: leadership ability is the result of certain personality traits, so leaders are born rather than developed, and Lincoln was richly endowed with the traits described above. Yet a closer examination reveals that while Lincoln, like all successful leaders, built on those characteristics which came to him naturally, he also worked throughout his life at developing other skills needed to complement his gifts.
Lincoln’s belief in the inherent goodness of others appears to have been a part of his personality. It was reinforced by his frontier upbringing, where the companionship of others was an infrequent pleasure to be savored and the hardships of life could only be overcome if neighbors temporarily set aside their own concerns to help others in greater need. It was nurtured by the storytelling culture of the frontier.
Lincoln’s reasoning skills, in contrast, were learned over many years as he taught himself law and sharpened his thinking in response to setbacks and rejections. The acquired ability to think critically, when combined with his mastery of language, his skills at storytelling and his understanding of his fellow man enabled him to make powerful and persuasive speeches. This was a skill which he deliberately developed over several decades.
Similarly, humility appears to have come naturally to Lincoln, and the circumstances of his early years reinforced it. His self-assurance, on the other hand, was developed over the years as he confronted a series of setbacks, discouragements and, even, depression.
At the root of these acquired skills was his ever-present sense of purpose. It did not allow him to give up in the face of disapproval and even political defeat and underpinned the sense of self-assurance which grew steadily as his career progressed. It led him to learn to reason and to grapple with complex logical and moral issues because this ability was necessary to fulfill his personal leadership mission.
If his sense of purpose lay at the heart of his leadership, another lesson lies in the source of that sense of purpose. It was not ambition for power, wealth or acclaim. It was a burning desire to serve others and to merit their respect.
This is not to say that Lincoln was not ambitious (he was) or that he did not relish power (he did), but these were simply means to a greater end. Whenever these came into conflict with his desire to serve others and to be seen as worthy, it was always these last traits that came to the fore.
Lincoln’s historical impact is immeasurable. Had the United States split into two weaker, quarreling nations, the history of the world in the twentieth century would have certainly followed a vastly different path.
His leadership legacy is equally powerful. It provides us with a model for leading in times of crisis and challenges today’s leaders to think deeply about questions like these:
- What is my purpose as a leader? What matters most?
- Why do I want to lead others? What are my deeper motivations for seeking a position of leadership?
- How do I respond to adversity and setbacks? How can I increase my resilience?
- How can I build my capacity to handle uncertainty and ambiguity?
- How can I use my adversaries as a source of learning and growth?
Appendix – Chronology of Lincoln’s Presidency
The crisis broke after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 but before he took office in March 1861 as seven Southern states withdrew from the Union. Until he took office, he lacked any formal authority to respond as the situation deteriorated. Political opinion in the North was splintered and chaotic; some wanted to let the Southern states go, others to negotiate, still others to compel their return by force. The loyalty of many government employees of Southern origin was suspect. South Carolina besieged three US forts in the state; two were abandoned by Northern troops before Lincoln assumed office, and the third fell to Southern troops in April.
In the first year of the war, both sides vastly overestimated their military capability and expected early victory. In fact, neither side was prepared for war. The Northern armies were led by General George McClellan, a respected peacetime soldier but not a man of action. Popular with the soldiers and politically well connected, McClellan disdained Lincoln, disregarded his instructions, and sometimes showed open disrespect. In response to Lincoln’s entreaties to attack the enemy, McClellan kept his troops in camp, claiming that they were not yet ready.
When McClellan did finally engage the enemy, the Northern armies suffered defeat in July 1861 and again in October. McClellan was one of six successive generals whose lukewarm approach gave Southern armies either victories or enabled them to escape intact after defeat. As frustrated as he was with McClellan’s insubordinate behaviour, Lincoln gave McClellan and his successors (Halleck, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade) the benefit of the doubt and his full support. Although Lincoln’s military instincts proved sound and his confidence grew as the war progressed, he recognized that military strategy must be implemented through the military hierarchy.
In contrast to excessively passive chief generals, other generals in the field created problems by exceeding their orders. In August 1861, General Frémont created a political firestorm for Lincoln by declaring martial law and freeing slaves in Missouri. Resisting advice to sack Frémont (whose action was strongly supported by some and strongly condemned by others), Lincoln intervened privately and later initiated an Army investigation.
The investigation report was highly critical of Frémont and was widely publicized. Buttressing his authority with the Army report, Lincoln succeeded in recalling Frémont without provoking a political break with the latter’s supporters. This was one of many occasions when Lincoln disarmed a provocative fait accompli without splintering his fragile political coalition by remaining calm, working behind the scenes, gathering the full story, educating public opinion through speeches and articles, and only then acting to reverse the fait accompli.
In January 1862, Lincoln again ordered McClellan to attack; four months passed before McClellan did so, and he was again repelled. In the meantime, the Northern armies experienced their first victories in the West. In August, McClellan’s timidity allowed the Southern armies to threaten Washington, the northern capital. Although they were eventually repelled, slow pursuit by Northern armies enabled them to escape. Northern armies under General Burnside were again defeated in December.
As 1863 began, the mood in Washington was somber, and northern voters and politicians had begun to tire of the war. In addition to his onerous duties as Commander in Chief, Lincoln faced the challenge of maintaining public and political support until the tide of war could be turned. In May, Northern armies under General Hooker suffered another defeat as General Grant began the siege of Vicksburg in the West. The fall of Vicksburg in July marked a turning point for the North, whose armies marched to further victories in September. To provide sufficient soldiers, Lincoln introduced conscription in July in the face of wide popular opposition and violent protests.
In General Grant, who was eventually given command of all Northern armies in March 1864, Lincoln finally found a general with the qualities he needed. Unlike his predecessors, Grant was willing to commit his army to battle. Setbacks to the North continued in May and June, yet the richer and more populous North could sustain the heavy casualties that would eventually drain the South.
The mood in July 1864 was grim as Lincoln called for 500,000 more volunteers just as many advised him to soften his war aims and seek peace or lose the coming year’s election. Public fatigue with the war grew to the point that Lincoln himself accepted that he was almost certain to lose the upcoming election.
The political situation changed drastically in August 1864 when General Sherman captured Atlanta, splitting the South in two. Lincoln’s reputation rose, and the North’s ultimate victory appeared certain for the first time. The political focus shifted to a fierce debate over the terms of peace: should the South be welcomed back into the Union, as Lincoln proposed, or should it be punished and treated as conquered territory? Lincoln’s was the strongest voice for moderation, and his political stature had grown steadily as he guided the North through the challenges of the crisis.
Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865—the same month in which Southern armies surrendered—deprived the nation of a leader most had come to admire greatly and silenced the strongest voice for moderation toward the defeated South.
Photo credit: Jake Brewer, “DC from Lincoln to Washington”.