Who is the leader you admire most? There would be many we like and studied. But our favorite would be Abraham Lincoln. He worked to achieve mastery in law and politics. Lincoln on leadership gave his toughest rivals power and autonomy.
In fact, he surrounded himself with rivals who excelled in areas where he was not strong.
And despite his many failures, his life was an immense success.
More interesting material: How to Create the Best Leadership Accountability
Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.
– Abraham Lincoln
First, some thoughts on leadership:
Nothing really prepares you to be a leader. In most cases, you get the opportunity to lead by being good at something else.
However, while being a strong performer gives you the credibility to lead, it says nothing about your ability to lead. Leadership is a skill in its own right and, for the most part, it’s one you learn on the job.
Of course, there’s no shortage of advice about being a leader. Some say that you should make decisions rationally, while others say you need to trust your gut.
Just like some say that it’s important to exude confidence, while others say that it’s important to show humility. It’s all terribly confusing.
The truth is that all leaders have different styles and you’ll have to figure out what yours is. Nobody can do that for you.
Still, one thing I wish somebody told me before I began leading people is what I would be required to do and how it would be different from any other job. Now I continually study leadership styles, like those of Lincoln.
Here is an awesome timeline of Lincoln’s life failures and successes:
1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them
Life on the American frontier in the early 19th century was no picnic for anyone; it required hours of back-breaking toil and drudgery day in and day out.
In the context of their time, however, the Lincolns lived under rather unremarkable circumstances.
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, had owned farmland in Hardin County, Kentucky, since the early 1800s, and he left Kentucky and moved his family across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1816.
1818: His mother died
This, at least, is no embellishment. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, did die of “milk sickness“ in 1818 when Abraham was only nine years old.
A mother’s death is a tragedy for any child, and it was a special hardship for a struggling farm family.
1831: Failed in business
Lincoln left his father’s home for good in 1831 and, along with his cousin John Hanks, took a flatboat full of provisions down the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans on behalf of a “bustling, none too scrupulous businessman” named Denton Offutt.
Offutt planned to open a general store, and he promised to make Lincoln its manager when Abraham returned from New Orleans.
Lincoln operated the store as Offutt’s clerk and assistant for several months (and by all accounts did a fine job of it) until Offutt, a poor businessman, overextended himself financially and ran it into the ground.
Thus by the spring of 1832 Lincoln had “lost his job.”
1832: Ran for state legislature – lost
Lincoln did run for the Illinois state legislature in 1832, although as Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald noted, “the post he was seeking was not an elevated one … [legislators] dealt mostly with such issues as whether cattle had to be fenced in or could enjoy the free range.”
Lincoln finished eighth in a field of thirteen (with the top four vote-getters becoming legislators).
However, this same year Lincoln also achieved something of which he was very proud when the members of a volunteer militia company he had joined selected him as their captain.
1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt
Lincoln and William F. Berry, a corporal from Lincoln’s militia company, purchased a general store in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833. (Lincoln had no money for his half; he didn’t technically “borrow the money from a friend” but instead signed a note with one of the previous owners for his share.)
Lincoln and Berry were competing against a larger, well-organized store in the same town; their outfit did little business, and within a short time it had “winked out.”
The debt on the store became due the following year, and since Lincoln was unable to pay off his note, his possessions were seized by the sheriff.
Moreover, when Lincoln’s former partner died with no assets soon afterward, Lincoln insisted upon assuming his partner’s half of the debt as well, even though he was not legally obligated to do so.
1834: Ran for state legislature again – won
In 1834 Lincoln was again one of thirteen candidates running for a seat in the state legislature, and this time he won, securing the second-highest vote total among the field.
1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated
By the time of the 1838-39 legislative session, Lincoln had twice been an unsuccessful Whig candidate for the position of speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.
This was a relatively minor political setback, however, and no mention is made here of the fact that by 1838 he was one of the most experienced members of the legislature.
1843: Ran for Congress – lost
One could claim this as a Lincoln failure in that he wanted to be a Congressman and failed to achieve that goal, but it is technically inaccurate to claim that he “ran for Congress” in 1843 and lost: The election was held in 1844, and Lincoln was not a candidate in that election.
Lincoln’s failure to achieve his party’s nomination at the May 1843 Whig district convention is undoubtedly what is referred to here.
1846: Ran for Congress again – this time he won
Lincoln won a seat as an Illinois representative to the U.S. Congress in 1846.
1848: Re-election to Congress
Lincoln did not “lose” the 1848 election. He did not run for re-election because Whig policy at the time specified that party members should step aside after serving one term to allow other members to take their turns at holding office. Lincoln, a faithful party member, complied.
1849: Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected
The position referred to here was commissioner of the General Land Office, a federal position, not a state one, and one that came with a fair amount of power and patronage.
Since Lincoln’s term in Congress was about to expire, his friends urged him to apply for this post, but Lincoln was reluctant to give up his law career.
He finally agreed to apply for the job when the choice was deadlocked between two other Illinois candidates, and it looked like the appointment might, therefore, go to a compromise candidate from outside of Illinois.
Whigs from northern Illinois then decided that too many appointments were going to party members from other parts of the state and put up their candidate against Lincoln.
The choice was left to the Secretary of the Interior, who selected the other candidate.
1854: Ran for Senate of the United States – lost
In Lincoln’s time, U.S. senators were not elected by direct popular vote; they were appointed by state legislatures.
In Illinois, voters cast ballots only for state legislators, and the General Assembly of the state legislature then selected nominees to fill open U.S. Senate seats.
So, in 1854 (and again in 1856) Lincoln was not technically running for the Senate; he was campaigning on behalf of Whig candidates for state legislature seats all throughout Illinois.
Nonetheless, after the 1854 state election, Lincoln made it known that he sought the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.
1856: Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention
His name was put into nomination by the Illinois delegation after most national delegates were already committed to other candidates.
(Lincoln himself was back in Illinois, not at the convention, and did not know he had been nominated until friends brought him the news.)
Nonetheless, in an informal ballot, Lincoln received 110 votes out of 363, not at all a bad showing for someone who was little known outside his home state.
1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again – lost
Again, Lincoln was not directly campaigning for a Senate seat, although it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the Republicans’ choice to take Stephen Douglas’ U.S. Senate seat if his party won control of the Illinois state legislature.
Lincoln bested Douglas in the sense that Republican legislative candidates statewide received slightly over 50% of the popular vote, but the Republicans failed to gain control of the state legislature, and Douglas, therefore, retained his seat in the Senate.
1860: Elected president of the United States
And again in 1864. A pretty good ending for someone who wasn’t quite the perennial failure this glurge makes him out to be.
So what can we learn about the man from these mostly failures?
Lincoln on leadership … rags to riches
No matter how humble our beginnings or circumstances we can all achieve greatness.
Surely Abraham Lincoln’s story epitomises the very essence of the now fabled “American Dream” as his life was a real “rags to riches story.”
Lincoln on leadership … if at first, you don’t succeed
Abraham Lincoln was not a huge success during his career. A famous quote that Lincoln used was: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
Lincoln was not content with what others perceived as his failures.
Lincoln on leadership … positive psychology
Modern positive psychology would tell us to that there is no such thing as a failure but rather just experiences. These experiences can be internalized by us as either successes or failures.
Clearly, like most successful people in business or politics, he was able to use and interpret these experiences in a way that supported his development.
Lincoln on leadership … hold your friends close and your enemies closer
It absolutely could apply to Abraham Lincoln because he used to say: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Lincoln was a master here: 10 Leadership Competencies You Should Not Live Without
Most of us would assume that if we don’t like someone or if we don’t get on well with them than we try to alienate them or certainly keep them at “arm’s length.”
However, this didn’t apply to Abraham Lincoln. He did the opposite in his career when he most famously appointed many of his rivals into his cabinet and sought their counsel on important issues.
The bottom line
The examples of leadership and failure lessons are all around us. All we have to do is be open-minded in how we look and how we apply the best lessons learned.
Now it’s your turn. What are the best lessons in leadership you have seen lately?
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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he writes about topics to help improve the performance of small business. Find him on G+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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Learning from Failure Like Lincoln on Leadership