Leadership Insights from Abraham Lincoln

Fewer Americans have produced words more sublime that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. From the Gettysburg Address to his second inaugural address to his letter to Mrs. Bixby, he was able to say in a few sentences things others spun into hours long speeches. Notable in this regard was the Gettysburg address delivered the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It clocked in at just over 270 words, while the main orator of the day, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln


Everett was struck immediately with the reality the rest of us have come to know: that Lincoln’s speech was both concise and brilliant. He later wrote to Lincoln noting “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln also oversaw the most tumultuous time in our nation’s history since we told the British to take a hike. Depending on the part of the country from which one comes, Lincoln has been, throughout history, alternately lionized or demonized. Knowing our national theological history, I would be shocked if some Confederate pastors did not suggest him as the Anti-Christ.

Like him or loathe him, the unique times in which he lived and led the country are something from which leaders today can learn. Here are a few insights from Lincoln as noted in Donald Phillips book, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times.

On the need to avoid isolating ones self as articulated when relieving General John C. Fremont from command (September 9, 1861):

His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.

On the need to persuade rather than coerce presented in his first debate with Stephen Douglas (August 21, 1858):

With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who holds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.

On not acting out of vengeance or spite from a letter about the readmission of Louisiana to the Union (July 28, 1862):

I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.

On the need to have an ultimate authority expressed in addressing new elections in the State of Arkansas (February 17, 1864):

Some single mind must be the master, else there will be no agreement in anything…

On allowing those to whom you have delegated authority to exercise it as expressed to General William T. Sherman (December 26, 1864):

Now the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce…But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.

Keeping the objective in constant view in a letter to General Joe Hooker (June 10, 1863):

I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point…Fight him when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him, and fret him.

Phillips expands on these and other ideas throughout his excellent little volume available below.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.