October 27


What you could learn from ‘Lincon on Leadership’ by Donald Phillips (1992, 173 pages)

In his book ‘Lincon on Leadership’ Donald Phillips uses examples from President Abraham Lincoln’s life to explore the type of leaders Lincon was, and what lessons are there to learn.  The book is split across four chapters: People, Character, Endeavour and Communication.

The main lesson articulated in the book are:

  • Get out of the office.  Lincoln was very approachable, often to the frustration of his protection team.  Every time troops of soldiers passed through Washington he would watch them march past, often in the pouring rain, and he would often stop them and talk with many of the soldiers.  He regularly met with members of the public.  He called these ‘public opinion baths’, and allowed him to take the temperature of the public.  Are you regularly speaking to members of your team at all levels?
  • Build strong alliance.  Influence grows proportionally to those poeple on your side.  Lincoln spent time building a coalition, it took him longer but he was able to go further.  Which peers or leaders have similar goals to you?
  • Persuade rather than coerce.  Lincoln was an influence and not a dictator, while this approach failed with many of his generals (as they would not take responsibility or act), it worked phenomenally well when he found Grant.  Are you directive or suggestive?
  • Honesty and integrity.  An organisation will draw its culture from its leader.   Without being a positive role model, you encourage poor behaviour in your team and followers.  By never relinquishing the moral high ground Lincoln was able to draw more people to his cause, and also win over opponents.  Do you set the example for your team?
  • Never act out of vengeance.  Acting from emotion will cause you to be rash, stupid and make mistakes.  Lincoln took time to react after he was annoyed or disappointed, and by reflecting on the end goal he was trying to achieve, he was able to act rationally.
  • Handle unjust criticism.  As a leader, you will be subject to scorn and ridicule.  Lincoln learnt to let the criticism wash over him, often by penning long response but then next sending them.  Do you respond to criticism in the heat of the moment?
  • Master paradoxes.  Leaders should try to be consistent, but should not be bound by consistency.  Lincoln was very consistent in both his manner and approach.  For example, he mostly chose to show his general what he wanted rather than tell them, however, when this did not work, he was not afraid to replace them.a general.  Are you aware of your inconsistencies? 
  • Be decisive.  When you need to make a decision, make it.  Lincon encouraged his generals to act on their own, but he cut them down when the attempted to make policy – which he saw as only his prerogative.  Do you hedge or delay important decisions?
  • Lead by being led.  Allow others with expertise to lead you.  If someone has a similar idea to yourself, let them take on the idea as their own – they will be more committed if it is their idea.  Is it important that the best idea comes from you, or that the best idea is executed?
  • Set goals and be results-orientated.   As Stephen Covey several hundred years later would mirror – ‘Start with the end in mind’  Lincoln had an unrelenting goal, prevent the break up of the Union, this allowed him to pause other goals, such as emancipation, in the knowledge that they could be done when the war was won.  What is your most important goal? Does everyone know this?
  • Find your ‘Grant’.  It took Lincoln several years, and many generals, to find his ‘Grant’ – someone that would act and win the war.  Keep searching, never settle for second best.  Are you settling with members of your team? Are they the very best?
  • Encourage innovation.  Leaders are often furthest removed from the front lines (or customers), so allow people the time, spaces and resources to innovate.  Do you balance discovery and delivery?
  • Master public speaking.  As a leader, you cannot have a one-to-one with everyone.  Public speaking allows you to scale your communication, and also allows you to address other audiences.  Can you, do you, address large audiences?
  • Influence through conversation and storytelling.  By using metaphors, analogies and stories Lincoln was able to convince people by showing rather than telling.  Do you show with stories, or tell people what to do?
  • Sell the vision – all the time.   Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Lincoln used every opportunity to reaffirm his message and vision and in doing so he allowed his followers to understand what they are fighting for.  Are you over communicating, if not you are under-communicating.

Well structured, and useful, ‘Lincoln on Leadership’ provides many compelling insights into the leadership approach of one of the world greatest leaders.  Read ‘Lincoln on Leadership’ to get a great (if one-sided) review of Lincoln, and some key lessons that are very relevant for modern leaders.

You can find Lincon on Leadership here on Amazon UK.