The Leadership Genius Of Abraham Lincoln

Abolishing slavery, ending the Civil War, and saving the Republic. You don't face the same challenges Abraham Lincoln did, but here's how he succeeded—and how you can too.

The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight to the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last a thousand years…. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together… and as a great character, he will live as long as the world lives.—Leo Tolstoy, 1909

Move over, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. With the 2012 election finally decided, our thoughts now move to Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded as the greatest president in American history.

Lincoln resurfaces this month thanks to the release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie depicting our sixteenth President’s final days in office—as he seeks to abolish slavery, end the Civil War, and save the Republic. Of course, even before seeing the film, we already know that, just six days before being assassinated, Lincoln succeeded at all these stunning ambitions.

That Lincoln was one of the most effective leaders in world history is a notion fully supported by his extraordinary accomplishments. But I’ve long wondered whether workplace leadership could be substantially improved were we to better understand—and adopt—the fundamental character traits that made him so remarkably influential with people.

In search of this insight, I recently mustered up the resolve to read all of the nearly 800 pages of in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lincoln biography, Team Of Rivals. My many hours of reading proved well spent.

The profound lesson to be drawn from this book is that Lincoln led brilliantly, not just from his mind, but also his heart. General William Tecumseh Sherman called it his "greatness and goodness."

While Lincoln’s exceptional intellectual skills were readily apparent at an extremely early age, his deeply humanitarian instincts very well may be the reason he’ll be revered by all future generations. At a time when employee happiness and engagement has reached an all-time low in the U.S., the example of Abraham Lincoln may just be what we need to re-inspire workers everywhere.

Molded By Loss

Born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, Lincoln grew up in abject poverty. His father never learned to read or write, working as a hired hand with little ambition. While his bright, caring mother taught him to read and spell, she contracted "milk sickness" and died when he was just nine. Routinely lent out to farmers needing workers, Lincoln had virtually no formal schooling. While still a boy, he witnessed the death of his infant younger brother and, later, his beloved older sister.

According to Kearns Goodwin, throughout his entire adult life, "Lincoln neither romanticized nor sentimentalized the difficult circumstances of his childhood." Instead, his acutely painful experiences became the source of life-long compassion and concern for others.

Herculean Feat Of Self-Creation

Lincoln was an entirely self-taught man. Exercising incomparable drive and determination, he was a voracious reader who used literature to transcend his circumstances. Seen with a book under his arm at all times, Lincoln devoured Aesop’s Fables and the works of Shakespeare, reading them so many times he could recite entire passages from memory.

Prior to being elected a U.S. Congressman in his thirties, he learned the trades of boatman, clerk, merchant, postmaster, surveyor and country lawyer. He pored over newspapers, and taught himself English grammar, geometry and trigonometry. "In a time when young men were apprenticed to practicing lawyers while learning the law, Lincoln studied with nobody," Kearns Goodwin wrote. Instead, he read and re-read borrowed law books until he understood them thoroughly.

"Life was a school to him and he was always studying and mastering every subject before him," Kearns Goodwin wrote. He later told a student seeking advice, "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing."

Indomitable Sense Of Purpose

From those hardships, Lincoln developed a deep self-confidence he fully leveraged throughout his entire adult life. But perhaps his greatest inspiration came from an intransigent belief that he had a purpose to fulfill.

Apparently at a very early age, Lincoln set his sights on "engraving his name in history." "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition," he wrote. "I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."

With the country greatly divided over slavery, and at the height of a Civil War that already had taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, Lincoln was certain his purpose was to preserve the greatest democracy the world had ever known, and to ensure its "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Tied to the conviction that his work was intrinsically important, it was Lincoln who consistently found the courage to invigorate the spirits of his cabinet and troops during the country’s most dire and desperate hours.

"Malice Toward None; Charity For All"

Adjectives routinely used to describe President Lincoln include "compassionate" "kindhearted" and "immodest." Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, once remarked, "No man clothed with such vast power ever wielded it more tenderly and forbearingly."

According to Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln’s prodigious influence on friends and foes alike was due to his "extraordinary empathy – the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling and to understand their motives and desires."

Helen Nicolay, whose father later became the President’s private secretary, believed Lincoln’s unusual sensitivity also proved to be an enormous asset to the ascendency of his career. "His crowning gift of political diagnosis was due to his sympathy," she said, "which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do."

Rather than vilify people opposed to slave emancipation, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy. In referring to the States that had come to fully depend on slaves working their farms, Lincoln astutely intuited, "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."

While Lincoln had a fierce personal ambition, he also had "the rare wisdom of temperament that consistently displayed magnanimity toward those that opposed him." He took great pains to re-establish rapport with the men who defeated him in early political races, and famously made a "team of rivals" by appointing to his Cabinet the three men he defeated for the Republican Presidential nomination.

A Thoughtful Communicator

In Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" and "Second Inaugural Address," we’re given stunning examples of the man’s brilliance as a thinker. But, just as important, Lincoln was a masterful writer and speaker who consistently moved people through his humor and kind personal presence.

"His speaking went to the heart because it came from the heart," reporter Horace White wrote. "I have heard celebrated orators who could start thunders of applause without changing a man’s opinion. Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence…produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself."

Lincoln also had a wonderful gift for telling stories and, intentionally used his quick and benign wit to soften wounded feelings and dispel anxieties.

He also was not afraid to display his own humanness. On more than one occasion, he traveled long distances to visit weary troops on the battlefield. Simply by demonstrating to them that their work mattered to him, he earned their unmitigated support. One soldier wrote in a letter home, "Lincoln’s warm smile was a reflection of his honest, kindly heart; but deeper, under the surface of that…were the unmistakable signs of care."

Lincoln’s Leadership Genius

What Abraham Lincoln seemed to intuitively understand about leadership 150 years ago remains uncommon knowledge today. Engagement and performance are mostly influenced by feelings and emotions.

Lincoln fundamentally cared about people and made every effort to demonstrate that to them. Through kind and encouraging words, and authentic gestures of exceptional thoughtfulness, he assured people of their individual significance. He was most essentially a human being who identified with the challenges people faced and the sacrifices they made. His tremendous influence was due to this.

Expressed in his own words, here is Lincoln’s most luminous leadership insight by far: "In order to win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason."

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century. Reach him on Twitter @markccrowley,, or his website,

[Image: Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy]

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  • Andrea Hernandez

    "Adjectives routinely used to describe President Lincoln include 'compassionate' 'kindhearted' and 'immodest.'"I think perhaps you meant "modest" in place of "immodest." The word immodest has negative connotations and doesn't go with the other words used to describe Lincoln. 
    Otherwise, really appreciated this article!

  • Jbejcek

    Reading about Lincoln, I was touched  when he stated, How do I tell a Mother her son was killed on a battlefield. POEWHIT

  • Gary F. Restall

    An outstanding example in many, many ways.  Definitely worth the study.  Then putting what is gleaned into practice.  Outstanding article as a teaser to learn more.  Thanks. 

  • Stephan Froelich

    The lessons about East Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg... of rotting corpses, rooting hogs
    in devouring men. A environmental nightmare of heads and arms protruding out of
    the ground are not yet real... but discouragement about the lying in the land, lies
    you couldn’t appose on a child ordinarily, that's what was bothering a President of the United States of America, at that time and that's what's real to us here today in America. A President reached out in
    addressing the heart of the problem to the Nation. In addressing the one question to the Nation. Why is Our House divided?

    Both Houses of the Congress had been divided, racial acts of rioting were
    obvios and this President announced a day of prayer and fasting to point a
    whole nation towards the true God. JFKs LAST SPEECH EVER - just before his assassination - on You Tubeshows how the conduct has changed since the 60s. Can you imagine how America has changed since 1863 when Abraham Lincoln got so discouraged about all that lying in the land. Does that sounds familiar..History can be repeated at the end of this month in November.Let's do it before rioting and civil war is taking you down the drain!Yes you can... the Leadership Genius of Abraham Lincoln must be renewed!Germany

  • Mark C. Crowley

    According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tim, this was a frequent adjective used by people to describe him.  Suppose one can be ambitious and immodest at the same time?

  • SikterEfendi

    "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and
    if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I
    could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do
    that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I
    believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear
    because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do
    less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I
    shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I
    shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt
    new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

    Nicolo Machiavelli would be proud.

  • Joe

    You must understand the timing and context of these words. Delivered in August of 1862 in response to an article by Horace Greeley. Lincoln had in JULY spoken to his Cabinet about his Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. So, these words were an attempt to begin introducing the idea of emancipation and preparing the general public for the official announcement. While preserving the Union was foremost his hatred of slavery was long noted and again his courage in finding a means to end it was evident.

  • Mark C. Crowley

    I think to judge Lincoln on these words ignores the real actions he inevitably took.  Noting slavery existed at the time of our country's founding, it was Lincoln who ensured it ended. That he may have had conflicted ideas and objectives during this process is not unrealistic.

  • Jeannine

    You are so right in the below reply.. It is very difficult to find good leaders,
    that is why so many of us have our own business. We better watch the movie
    to be that leader.. Leaders are readers. We can learn from many successful
    people. We only want to duplicate the ones with integrity, quality. Most importantly,
    respect and dedication with determination and hard work is necessary.. Looks like you
    have good insight to have written that book successfully.
    Great article and good luck.

    Jeannine Kurtela

  • Sue

    Great article, Mark!  I don't see anything related to the reports of Lincoln's depression (although who wouldn't be depressed to have ordered such loss of life in a war).  Wonder if there's a correlation between caring and depression.... 

  • Mark C. Crowley

    Thank you, Sue.  I'm convinced that any kind of personal suffering changes your original wiring and leads to greater empathy, compassion and humility.  Seems as if all the great leaders I'm familiar with had some trying or painful experiences in their lives that motivated them.  Lincoln's depression, as you suggest, seems likely to have influenced him into becoming an especially caring person -- but, man, what a childhood!