The Greatness of Lincoln – Building a Team of Rivals

Warwick Fairfax

March 20, 2019

Abraham Lincoln is commonly regarded by most historians as the greatest American President. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said that Lincoln’s supremacy compared to other great leaders in history was due to “his peculiar moral power and … the greatness of his character.” Lincoln was able to assemble a great team and create an environment for them to succeed. The cornerstone of his leadership that enabled him to do this was his character.

Appointing a Team of Rivals

Lincoln had a profound sense of self-confidence mixed with humility. He knew who he was and was content within his own skin. This sense of inner confidence and contentment with who he was enabled him to appoint a team irrespective of what they thought of him. He was not easily threatened, nor was he insecure. This was most apparent at the beginning of his presidency when he appointed three rivals for the Republican nomination for president to three of the most important positions in his cabinet. William Seward was his main political rival and he appointed him to arguably the most important position in the cabinet, Secretary of State. Salmon Chase, a former governor of Ohio and US senator, was appointed as Secretary of the Treasury and Edward Bates was appointed as Attorney General.

What was amazing about these appointments, is that not only were these men his political rivals, but they each thought that the wrong man had been nominated for president by their party. They had rather a dim view of Lincoln and saw him as a relatively uneducated person from the wilds of Illinois. Lincoln, however, wanted the strongest cabinet possible, irrespective of their personalities or even whether they respected or liked him. He stated that “we needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet” and that he “had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Few leaders appoint a team of people who were their rivals for the top position and who don’t necessarily respect them. It’s a risky move. These former rivals may well try to undermine the leader and may potentially still lobby for the leader’s position. Salmon Chase was the most difficult of his cabinet and did work to undermine Lincoln at times. In 1864, which was an election year, Chase and his supporters published a pamphlet very critical of Lincoln saying that Chase had “more of the qualities needed in a President.” Chase would often threaten to resign to reassert his authority. Eventually Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation but ended up nominating Chase to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in December 1864.  Even Lincoln did not really want to do this, but he said that “there is not a man in the Union who could make as good a chief justice as Chase.”

Creating a Successful Environment

Lincoln not only picked a group of people with diverse skills to be in his cabinet, but he also created an environment for them to succeed. Lincoln was fiercely loyal to his team and would always support them. He would not let short-term political expediency make him sacrifice a key member of the team who deserved to stay. In 1862, the North suffered some military reverses. Members of Congress blamed the Secretary of State, William Seward, who in the early years of Lincoln’s presidency was seen as the power behind the throne. While Seward offered to resign, Lincoln calmly listened to his members of Congress and defended Seward against their accusations. Team members do not forget this kind of loyalty.

Lincoln also took input well. During Lincoln’s writing of the Second Inaugural Address after the 1864 election, Lincoln actually asked some of his team to give input into the address. Another example of Lincoln’s ability to receive input was shown by a meeting Lincoln had with a military officer who said that while he had not voted for Lincoln in the election, he would loyally support him. Lincoln said to the officer that “when you see me doing anything that for the good of the country ought not to be done, come and tell me so, and why you think so…”

By the end of Lincoln’s presidency and certainly after his death, the attitudes of Lincoln’s team had changed dramatically. William Seward, Lincoln’s key rival for the Republican presidential nomination, said Lincoln was “the best and wisest man he [had] ever known.” Edward Bates said that Lincoln “comes very near being a perfect man.” What accounts for such a turnaround in attitudes by Lincoln’s team? In summary, it was his character. Lincoln not only had this innate self-confidence, humility and self-awareness, but he took input well and was fiercely loyal to his team.

Learning from A Man of Character

What can we as leaders learn about organizational leadership from Lincoln? Appoint the best leaders to your team with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds irrespective of what they think of you. Your job is to set a clear vision and direction…and then win them over. The more secure you are and the more authentic and self-aware, the more you will build trust with your team.

It all boils down to your character as a leader. This is the key to assembling a great team and creating an environment for them to succeed. If you can’t be a leader of character who leads by example, you should not be a leader. It’s better to step out of the way and let a better leader, a leader of character, take your place.

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Reflection

  • Examine your own character as a leader. Do you have the self-confidence to appoint a team with diverse skills, even if they may not even like you? If not, outline areas of deficiency (taking input, loyalty, delegation) and work up a plan to improve.
  • How good are you at taking input from your team? The next time you have a team meeting or are meeting with an employee individually, make it a point to listen first before you say anything.

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