Lincoln on Leadership - Critical summary review - Donald T. Phillips

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Lincoln on Leadership - critical summary review

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Management & Leadership

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 8601401188704

Publisher: Warner Books

Critical summary review

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is consistently ranked by scholars and the public alike as one of the greatest (if not “the” greatest) U.S. president in history. Interested in the ideology of the Founding Fathers ever since his early childhood, he was always interested in getting only the best for his people. And that’s precisely what he dedicated his life to.

Even though one of  the most violent conflict in the history of the United States – the Civil War – happened during his time in the presidency, he remained, for most of his life, a decent man with a gentle heart. He firmly believed that whatever you do in life, you should do it with good intention, because that is the only way you can lead other people to unity and greatness.

He also believed in equality and wanted to give everyone a chance to be able to express themselves. As far as Lincoln was concerned, nobody had the right to disrespect others, because everyone was a person before anything else. 

In “Lincoln on Leadership,” dubbed in its blurb “the first book to examine Abraham Lincoln's diverse leadership abilities,” noted nonfiction writer and celebrity biographer Donald T. Phillips explores how Lincoln’s leadership skills can be applied to today's complex world.

On about two hundred pages, nicely divided into four parts and fifteen chapters, the book does precisely that, crowning anecdotes from Lincoln’s life with some timeless leadership messages.

And we have the highlights!

People 1: Get out of the office and circulate among the troops

They say that Alexander the Great knew every one of his soldiers by name. We don’t know whether this is true – it most probably isn’t – but we do know that two millennia later, Abraham Lincoln actually came close to achieving this.

You see, during the American Civil War, on their way to the front, many state regiments passed through Washington D.C. Despite the pressure of being a president at such tumultuous times and having a lot on his mind on a daily basis, it is said that Lincoln always found time to personally inspect each of these regiments.

The result? The soldiers were more motivated and more certain in the genuineness of the vision of their leader. And it’s not just that!

Lincoln maintained close involvement with just about everybody! In fact, he even went to the battlefield to comfort wounded soldiers. And he also held impromptu conferences with the members of his cabinet, despite their official biweekly meetings!

As a result, some historians estimate that he spent about three-fourths of his time meeting people from all walks of life and aspects of his administration. Now we know that Lincoln intuitively practiced something modern leadership consultants call management by wandering around (MBWA). 

MBWA advocates think that the best way to lead a company is the meet-them-all way, suggesting that, if leaders don't stay in touch with their employees, they are leaders only in the abstract..

It is time-consuming and sometimes burdensome, but it pays off dividends in the long run! If it worked for Lincoln during the Civil War, why shouldn’t it work for you at times of peace and even during a financial crisis?

People 2: Persuade rather than coerce

Some say that the only way a leader can institute some order among their subordinates is practicing the oldest tactic in the book: the carrot and the stick training routine.

Lincoln is an excellent example that eliminating the stick is even better: people are not animals, and, when led by someone they can trust, they don’t need punishment to start following the leader.In these cases, punishment may be counterproductive.

Lincoln knew this very well, so he was never interested in coercing people to do stuff for him. Instead, he preferred to persuade them to agree. And he achieved this in a very subtle manner, by combining motivational pep talks with real orders disguised as suggestions.

As your parents know well, orders have almost no effect upon people. On the other hand, suggestions make receptors feel as if they are a part of the process and give them both the confidence to go on, and the conviction (fundamental) that they are not inferiors.

To achieve this, the leaders of today must practice their rhetorical skills. Take Lincoln for an example: at the time he started his political career, slavery was a pretty divisive issue, but afterward, he was able to abolish it. And he achieved this by making the people believe that they were a part of a great revolution, one that should go down in history as a monumental event.

“Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave,” he spoke in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854,” we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now, from that beginning, we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self-government.' These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one must despise the other.”

See what he did there? He appealed to the audience’s shared faith in their nation’s founding principles, and he made sure that they knew which principles he was talking about. 

“Mr. Lincoln's eloquence was of the higher type,” wrote a journalist at the time, “which produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself. His listeners felt that he believed every word he said, and that, like Martin Luther, he would go to the stake rather than abate one jot or tittle of it.”

Character: Never act out of vengeance or spite

Do you know that throughout his presidency, Lincoln granted more pardons than any other president in the U.S. history? Well, now, you do! Can you guess why?

Of course, it is because he had realized intuitively something many leaders don’t: even though vengeance in tumultuous times may bring stability, it also gives birth to enemies, and forgiveness always brings something more desirable – unity and togetherness.

The punishment for desertion from the Union Army during the Civil War was nothing short of death. Yet, for obvious reasons (who wants to fight a war, anyway?), many soldiers deserted the army.

Even though this decision risked more deserters, Abraham Lincoln didn’t think twice to save these afraid soldiers from execution. They paid him back by embracing his policies and voting for his followers, long after his assassination.

There’s more, Lincoln forgave his enemies as well. When, toward the end of the Civil War, a group of Confederate soldiers approached him demanding not to be executed for treason, Lincoln granted their request.

In return, they remained faithful to him in the future to come, inciting other confederates to join them. Acting this way, Lincoln started becoming a leader not only in the eyes of his people but also in the eyes of his enemies.

Endeavor 1: Keep searching until you find your “Grant”

Ever since the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln knew two things: first, that he needed strong, independent staff to win it; and second, that it would be challenging to find the right stuff in such tough times.

So, he instituted the politics of honeymooning, aka trial periods. If you know the history, you know well that Ulysses S. Grant, the man who eventually won the war, wasn’t Lincoln’s first choice. He wasn’t the second either.

But Lincoln, expecting that his first few choices wouldn’t be the best ones, gave everyone a trial period, or, in other words, a chance to prove their worth. Winfield Scott and George B. McClellan remained at the position for no more than a few months each, because they failed to win the Lincoln’s trust.

So, he took matters in his own hands for four months until he appointed Henry Wager Halleck as his general. A master of administration, Halleck proved to be a “little more than a first-rate clerk” in all other matters as well. That’s Lincoln’s description between the quotes, and so he was fired after a year and a half at the position.

And then, finally, Lincoln found his “Grant” (which in his case was the original Grant), a self-motivated fighter who wasn’t afraid to take initiative when it mattered. 

The lesson for modern leaders is rather obvious: give your new employees a trial period of a few months to prove their worth. If they don’t demonstrate the desirable qualities during this period, replace them. Eventually, you’ll find your “Grants.”

Endeavor 2: Encourage innovation

Does the number 6,469 mean anything to you? Probably not.

However, to history buffs, it means something exciting, because it is the patent number for an invention called "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals," the only United States patent ever registered to a president. By now, you’ve already guess it’s Lincoln.

Lincoln was fascinated by innovation and made sure that everyone in his immediate circle shared this fascination. He was very aware that it is innovation that helps a person be a step ahead of the others, and during tough times such as the Civil War, this is doubly important.

So, he regularly organized demonstrations of new technology around Washington and personally attended most of them. Aware that any technological advancement would give the North edge over the South, Lincoln regularly evaluated useful technologies, from flamethrowers to hot-air balloons and even rockets!

Moreover, he also made sure that new technologies were quickly implemented and he even overrode his generals when it came to the introduction of a new type of rifle. In the end, this decision proved crucial in his army’s ultimate victory.

The takeaway? If you don’t innovate and/or implement technological innovations as soon as possible, someone else surely will. Even if you are ahead, soon enough, you’ll fall behind. Don’t allow that ever happen.

Communication: Master the art of public speaking

Lincoln was a great communicator. Possibly it was because he was a born leader, or perhaps because he had understood, early in his life, that the real secret to great leadership is communication.

No matter how noble and pure your vision is, you won’t be able to lead people to its fruition if you can’t communicate it to the majority.

And to do that, you need to master the art of public speaking. Some people think that this means being able to talk for hours and hours, while others believe that public speaking is all about conciseness and brevity.

The truth is – it doesn’t matter. Lincoln spoke for whole days during his election campaign (that’s not an exaggeration) and talked for no more than three minutes during the Gettysburg address, the most quoted speech in American history.

The reason why he was successful in both cases is simple: proper preparation. He spent hours revising his speeches, writing newer and newer versions, and editing old ones until he was finally happy with them.

Sometimes this meant a long speech, other times only 271 words. The point is: Lincoln’s words were his words, carefully crafted, and even more carefully selected.

Allow us a question, dear modern leader: when was the last time you gave a speech written and edited by yourself?

Final Notes

“Lincoln on Leadership” is an excellent read, and it is not at all surprising that it was “Clinton’s private bible about how to govern,” according to Time magazine.

Recommended not only by governors and senators, but also by football coaches and CEOs (and with the same fervor), there is really a lot one can take away from Phillips’ “fascinating, instructive, and inspiring” book (Stephen R. Covey).

Unfortunately, at times, “Lincoln on Leadership” portrays the 16th president as all but a superhuman, truly impeccable individual who could basically do no wrong. Perhaps Phillips could have been a little more realistic because we really believe that no leader would ever be as perfect as the one portrayed in this book.

Lincoln included.

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Who wrote the book?

Donald T. Phillips is a bestselling nonfiction author best known for telling stories and bringing history alive with crisp, compelling prose. Author of the worldwide acclaimed trilogy on American leadership “Lincoln on Leadership,” “The Founding Fa... (Read more)

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