Enough About Abraham Lincoln's Pants, What Can You Learn From Him?

The Lincoln Memorial is clean again. Order is restored. So today is the perfect day to reconsider the great man—and discover lessons from Lincoln that you can apply to your life and work every day.

Someone dirtied Honest Abe's pants today.

If you missed it, early Friday morning, a group of vandals splashed the famed president's memorial with green paint. Don't worry. He's going to be okay.

With Abe's pants back from the laundry (the memorial will likely open back up today), we thought it was a good time to share a few leadership lessons from one of America's most celebrated presidents.

He didn't get the name "honest" for nothing

As the story goes, Lincoln was a young storekeeper in New Salem, Illinois and found his register a few cents over at the end of the day. At some point, he realized, he had inadvertently shortchanged a customer. Lincoln proceeded to walk several miles to return the change.

So be honest—no matter how big or small the task at hand. It might just be a few cents (though we can't forget about inflation, so it was a bit more), but the lesson remains the same: It shows people that you care. And that's important.

Be a good storyteller

Lincoln was famous for his love of telling stories. Harvard professor and Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, describes how Lincoln not only genuinely loved the act of telling stories, but how he used them to get out of tricky situations.

It was useful for him, telling stories was a useful way to avoiding quick answers, easy answers, and it was one of his favorite devices to putting himself down—to minimize the ego.

Skipping forward a few hundred years, the advice still stands strong. Storytelling gives you a personal connection with the person you're interacting with. It shows your human, and, would you believe it, can actually land you a job.

Remember: Every leader tells a story.

Devour knowledge, diversify your talent

This isn't the first time we've covered Lincoln, by any means. Just because you're in business doesn't mean you should ONLY read about business and go to conferences. It's important to diversify your intake of information and expand your horizons.

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.

Try reading a book about plants, learn how to fly a kite, or take some graph paper for a spin. You never know where it will take you.

Don't be scared of competition—embrace it

You've just defeated your opponents and won the presidency. You have a lot of enemies. What do you do?

If you're Abraham Lincoln, you appoint them to your cabinet and turn rivalry into respect.

After his election in 1860, Lincoln filled his cabinet with the very men that opposed him for nomination, and political rivals from the North and South of the country.

Just because you disagree with someone, doesn't mean their insight isn't valuable.

Despite your gut reaction, enemies are actually good for business. Some would suggest that you should go out of your way to pick a fight.

As Lincoln himself said, "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."

And with that, we'll leave you with one of our favorite quotes from the Great Emancipator:

"Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing."

[Image: Flickr user Scott Robinson]

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2 Comments

  • Amber King

    Love the article Miles. This can also be applied to businesses as well. Firms need to be honest with their customers. No fake promises just plain honesty on products and services. Use a story to connect with prospects. These days in order to get through our market, you need to create a good story. And lastly, constantly learn. The world evolves and so should businesses. The needs of our clients changes so it is our job to learn that.

  • Shinks

    i just finished the excellent book "Team of Rivals" about how Lincoln appointed the people who ran against him to his cabinet and used their talent to win the civil war.  I consider it one of the best business books I have ever read.