The Zen of 9 Abraham Lincolns Leadership Lessons
Zen teaches that the potential to achieve enlightenment is inherent in everyone but lies dormant because of ignorance. It is best awakened not by the study of scripture or the practice of good deeds, but by breaking through the boundaries of mundane logical thought. Lincolns leadership lessons certainly break through these boundaries. This blog will explain why this is true.
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. He 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.
His motivational leadership style was rooted in two higher goals: freeing the slaves and keeping the nation intact. These were big motivators for most of Americans, yes?
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.” The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a masterful telling of Lincoln’s story that follows the lives of each of his cabinet members.
T. Duryea of the U.S. Christian Commission, which met frequently with President Abraham Lincoln writes:
In temper he was earnest, yet controlled, frank, yet sufficiently guarded, patient, yet energetic, forgiving, yet just to himself; generous yet firm. His conscience was the strongest element of his nature. His affections were tender & warm. His whole nature was simple and sincere – he was pure, and then was himself.
Both the movie and the book give great 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 ten leadership lessons from our 16th president on how to lead change in both your personal and professional lives.
Lead by example and a positive attitude
Work to be, the way you want to be perceived. Don’t try to look good, be good. A good name is more valuable than fine diamonds.
If you look for something to complain about, you can certainly find it. There’s ‘always’ an opportunity to be offended. Don’t take these opportunities; they don’t lead to anything positive. Learn to see the roses in life; life is filled with roses, if you’ll take the time to see them.
Show your spirit
The spirit that guided him was clearly that described in his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…. ” He always demonstrated his strong spirit.
Pick a strong team
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. He surrounded himself with his rivals who excelled in areas where he was not strong. He gave credit where it was due and wasn’t afraid to accept the blame. He genuinely sought out and listened to other people’s point of view.
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.
You have to have others on your team who are not afraid to challenge you or at least feel at ease enough to express their opinions. Learn how to learn from your strongest rivals.
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 know when 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, identifying musts and wants, and using that as a guide to compare options. Assess the risk of each option as well as the benefits, to help in making smart tradeoffs between alternatives.
Lincoln knew when to speak and when to remain silent. He knew when to act and when to wait. At the same time, Lincoln wasn’t afraid to lead. When he knew his actions would likely sway more people to his point of view, he got out in front of them and acted. But he only did so when he was sure he wouldn’t lose the people lagging behind.
Before you can succeed, you must prepare. When Lincoln was an unknown attorney in the backwoods of Illinois he was preparing for success, when Lincoln became an Illinois State Senator, he was preparing for success, and even when he lost the election for the U.S. senate twice, he was preparing for success. What are you doing in preparation for success?
Connect on a personal level
We know Lincoln was fair, but he 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. Good leaders demonstrate empathy, take an interest in others and work to build solid relationships.
Lincoln might best be known for his integrity and willingness to do the right thing even if it was difficult or unpopular.
Directly after the Union had taken the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln marched with a handful of men into the capital city, the heart of the enemy’s territory. The night of his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln denied the services of a large security detail to accompany him to play. Even though he knew he would probably be assassinated at some point, he wasn’t about to live his life in fear because of it.
Fear is a crippling thing, especially to the leader. There are always a billion things that could go wrong. You just might fail. But you’ll never know until you try.
Don’t avoid adversity
Lincoln never shied away from controversy. He was once quoted as saying:
No matter how much the cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.
And he was correct. You’ll never please everyone. There will always be critics to what you do. Sticking to your guns and following your heart is what defines who you are and will shape your success in the future.
At the same time, we have to be open to constructive criticism. These criticisms will help us shape and fine-tune our ideas into something better.
Lincoln might best be known for his integrity and willingness to do the right thing even if it was difficult or unpopular. He was willing to accept the fallout of his decisions and being accountable. He took responsibility for his administration’s mistakes even when his subordinates were at fault.
At personal cost to himself, Lincoln chose the high road, sometimes paying for it in initial political strategy, only to find respect from his countrymen increasing over time. A good model for any leader, yes?
Don’t fear failure
Lincoln did fail quite a bit. He was quoted as saying:
My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.
Failure is essential to any leader. It builds character and allows you to see what won’t work and certainly to reflect and learn. It’s not until you fail that you show your true colors.
Simplicity of communication
Lincoln’s oratorical skills are legendary, and he was the very best at getting across excellent, long remembered messages in as few of words as possible.
He was very good at storytelling and painting a picture. He knew the power and magic of a story. That’s why his speeches are full of analogies, pictures, and anecdotes. Being a ‘commoner’ was a badge of honor that helped him communicate to the men who gave their lives on the battlefield, the families who buried their young, and the slaves who desired their freedom.
In conclusion, remember this: Lincoln was a great president because he was a great man.
So what’s the conclusion? The conclusion is there is no conclusion. There is only the next step. And that next step is completely up to you.
It’s up to you to keep improving your ability to lead. Lessons are all around you. In many situations, history may be providing the ideas and or inspiration. But the key is in knowing that it is within you already.
It’s up to you to keep improving your leadership learning and experience from all around in your environment.
All you get is what you bring to the fight. And that fight gets better every day you learn and apply new lessons.
When things go wrong, what’s most important is your next step.
Try. Learn. Improve. Repeat.
Are you devoting enough energy continually improving your continuous learning?
Do you have a lesson about making your learning better you can share with this community? Have any questions or comments to add in the section below?
Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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