What we can learn from Lincoln’s Leadership

Yes, this is another post on Lincoln, following What the Left can Learn from Lincoln, but as someone who led a government to win the US Civil War, implement the first US income tax, became the first Republican President and abolished slavery, he knew a thing or two about leading old white men – an essential skill in Western politics.

In this post, I delve into two unique features of his leadership: 1) a desire for a legacy, rather than fame or fortune and 2) an ambition with magnanimity, rather than ego.

The Background

Just like my previous piece, this post is based on the astonishingly well researched and thoroughly written book ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. For my summary, read it here – Abraham Lincoln.

For Neither Fame nor Fortune

Abraham Lincoln was not born with ambition, his parents were not noteworthy and with his lack of school education, it was an inauspicious beginning. Instead, Lincoln’s ambition grew in the most peculiar of ways – from death. From a young age, Lincoln lost many close family members. He lost his brother when he was 3, his mother at 9, his sister at 19, his first love at 26 and in later life, his two sons. As Goodwin writes, ‘he really became for a while obsessed with the thought of what happens to us after we die…and thought that if he could accomplish something worthy then he would live on in the memory of others’. Lincoln considered death as final and was devoid of a religious explanation for life after death. I think this propelled his ambition to make the most of his life on earth and to create a long-lasting legacy.

Like the Ancient Greeks, he subscribed to the belief that “the ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” This was not unique to Lincoln; the nearly-forgotten Alexander Hamilton was also concerned with this, as was portrayed in the famous Broadway musical Hamilton in the final piece ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story‘.

I had the fortune of seeing thanks to my aunt and it was well worth the hype! This is their performance at the Obamas.

This form of ambition was obsessed by neither financial remuneration nor popular appeal, although often both followed, but instead the desire to be viewed positively in the annals of history. This created a long-term incentive with little short-term reward but as a result, Lincoln’s ambition was interwoven with the long-term future of his country. This was crucial to the subsequent success of this nation in its darkest moments and why Lincoln’s legacy remains today.

An Ambition without Ego

What I find most remarkable about Lincoln is the juxtaposition of his great ambition and lack of ego. (Where ambition is a desire to achieve something, while an ego is just an inflated sense of self-worth.) ‘His singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation or bitterness’, as Goodwin writes, was essential to equip the country with the most capable men (Lincoln wasn’t that progressive!) for roles which would determine the US won the Civil War. Here are but three examples:

1) Race for The Senate

In 1854, Lincoln ran for the Senate election. In the first round of voting, Lincoln was a clear preference with 45 out of the 91 votes cast but he failed to surpass the threshold of 51. Lyman Trumbull, a Democrat with a similar platform to Lincoln, had a paltry 5 votes. As voting rounds continued, Lincoln neared 51 but remained unable to pass the threshold as Trumbull’s crew were unwilling to budge for Lincoln.

As opposed to selecting a pro-slavery leader, Lincoln, the ever pragmatist, withdrew and convinced his supporters to vote for Trumbull, which won him the election in the 10th Round of voting. Lincoln remained magnanimous in this defeat and earned the respect of many opposition members who later proved integral to his election. I still cannot fathom how he didn’t feel like this was daylight robbery but I’m not one to be known for a lack of ego…

Police continue to search for 3 armed men.

2) Team of Rivals

In 1860, won the Republican Nomination by complete surprise. His competitors were all men who had better-resources, connections and influence than himself.  Nonetheless, from his captivating speeches, humble background and magnanimity in defeat he had earned the respect of party members. This played in his favour as the ‘2nd’ favourite of most voters, he won in the 3rd round of voting.


In the same year, Lincoln won the Presidential Election and had to choose a cabinet. As was common at the time, he could have rewarded his loyal supporters with offices of great prestige. Instead, he chose to select men who had every reason to resent him: his defeated competitors from the Republican Party Nominee. He chose the top four members of the party as people who represented different opinions and had demonstrated different strengths.

Unsurprisingly, harmony was difficult to manage in the cabinet but he was confident that each dissident voice was worth listening to. Over time, Seward, Cameron, Chase, Bates and Edward Stanton, a vocal critique who was later elected to the cabinet, all came to respect, admire and appreciate Lincoln. Lincoln, as Goodwin named the book, chose a ‘Team of Rivals’ for their potential to serve the country rather than to soothe his ego.

3) The impertinent Salmon Chase

Salmon Chase was a radical abolitionist who had led the first cries for the abolition of slavery. His commitment to the cause was admirable but he also pined for the Presidential seat. He was inconspicuous in his attempts to undermine Lincoln in public and promote his own credentials for President. Contrasting Lincoln with Chase, one observer commented that one whilst Lincoln ‘profoundly versed in man, [Chase] was profoundly ignorant of man’. However, Chase remained a fantastic Secretary of the Treasury.

Lincoln was ‘notably free of pettiness, malice, and overindulgence’ (Goodwin, 2005) and chose to consistently turn a blind eye to Chase’s misbehaviour as he knew of no man better for the job. When he did find one, he accepted Chase’s resignation and later elected him as the Chief Justice. Lincoln did not let the personal threat that Chase imposed to affect his choices for the good of the country.

A Tentative Conclusion

Abraham Lincoln was a gentle giant. As one person wrote at the time of his assassination, ‘Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other’.

As I wrote here, he keenly understood humans, had an empathy for their concerns and a mastery of how to carry public sentiment with him. In addition, his leadership was marked by a desire to form a legacy rather than acquire fame or fortune and a remarkable ambition without an ego to corrupt it.

To properly honour Lincoln’s legacy we should learn and apply lessons from his character and leadership; instead, we discard him to the pages of old history textbooks, the background of selfies and films about his vampire hunting skills…



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A hypocrite who enjoys engaging with ideas, challenging my own and exploring new ones.

3 thoughts on “What we can learn from Lincoln’s Leadership”

  1. Was happy to play catch-up whilst at the license renewal office today. Thanks to this post, now know a thing or two more about Lincoln! Love – Mama

    Liked by 1 person

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