4 Leadership Lessons From Abraham Lincoln
In a scene from the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln tells her husband: "No one is loved as much as you by the people. Don't waste that power." Spoiler alert: He doesn't.
While the movie focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, it also gives a lot of insight to Lincoln's strong leadership skills -- those things that have made him so admired.
While you may not be leading revolutionary change in the country, here are four leadership lessons from our 16th president on how to lead revolutionary change at your startup or small business.
1. Say no to 'Yes Men.' At a time in history when the United States was at war with itself, Lincoln surprisingly chose to fill his cabinet with a team of his rivals. These were men he considered to be the best and brightest minds in the country, and they were unafraid to challenge Lincoln and assert their opposition. A self-confident man, Lincoln welcomed strong opinions as it provoked thoughtful debate as well as inner reflection. It proved to be an important tactic during his presidency.
Rick Lepsinger, president of the New York City-based leadership consulting firm OnPoint, agrees: "Don't hire in your own image," he says. "Get comfortable with conflict and learn how to manage differences productively."
Lepsinger suggests that leaders not allow conflicts to fester, but bring them to the surface as soon as possible. He also recommends avoiding the overuse of compromise, looking instead for common ground and alternatives.
2. Be decisive. While it's helpful to get more than one opinion, strong leaders know when and how to make decisions. Cabinet members could have argued forever, but Lincoln had the ability to knowwhen he had all of the information he needed. Walking away to seek solitude, he was able to determine the best solution and make a decision without wavering.
Good leaders clarify their decision criteria, says Lepsinger, identifying musts and wants, and using that as a guide to compare options. "Assess the risk of each option as well as the benefits," he says. "These practices will increase confidence that you've selected the alternative that is the best balance of risk and reward."
3. Look for inspiration in unlikely places. As a member of Congress, Lincoln studied mathematics to gain wisdom in reasoning. In the movie, Lincoln shares some of this wisdom with two young clerks at the telegraph office: “Euclid's first common notion is this: 'Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.'"
Lepsinger says leaders are continuous learners and look outside their industry for ideas and innovation.
4. Connect with people on a personal level. We know "Honest Abe" was fair, but Lincoln was also known for his jokes and storytelling. It's how he broke the ice and blazed a trail to common ground. Lincoln also made himself accessible. As president of the United States, he kept regular office hours and citizens were allowed to see him.
"It's not how smart you are -- strong personal relationships and high levels of trust are the foundation of effective leadership," says Lepsinger. "[Good leaders] demonstrate empathy, take an interest in others and find out details about them."
Related: How to Earn Your Employees' Respect