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 Leadership Genius Of Abraham Lincoln

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]