Learning from History: Abraham Lincoln and the Power of Teams

I believe that there are many examples of leadership lessons that are available from a review of our history. Abraham Lincoln is held up as one of our greatest leaders and I would like to briefly review one small aspect of what allowed him to get such great results for our country.


Abraham Lincoln

In thinking about Lincoln, I am drawn to the team he created to lead the country through a very difficult time. By the time he was elected President in 1860, seven states had seceded from the Union. To develop a team that would be able to handle the challenges facing the country, Lincoln included the three rivals that had run against him in the primary election for his party in his Cabinet in key posts.

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book about the team he created called Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Katie Couric asked Barack Obama what one book aside from the Bible he would take to the White House if elected and this is the book he said he would bring.

Each of these people brought specific skills and strengths to their positions in the cabinet. They were each an important part of the success of Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War. Through this historical review, Kearns shows how Lincoln was able to capitalize on the strengths that each of these leaders brought to the government and to manage the challenges of each as well.

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”  –Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln named William Seward, who had been considered the frontrunner going into the convention as his Secretary of State. Salmon Chase, who was a favorite of the more radical wing of the party and an early advocate of the abolition of slavery, became Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. Edward Bates, a favorite of the conservative wing of the party became Lincoln’s Attorney General.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” –Abraham Lincoln

Though strong rivals to start, they came to respect and appreciate Lincoln and to truly work well with him. At times Chase actively worked against him, in hopes of replacing him on the 1864 ticket. Lincoln made the decision to continue working with Chase and appointed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, feeling he was best positioned to ensure the rights of newly freed black citizens’ would be secured.

Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team talks about the behaviors that are needed for teams to work cohesively to achieve the best results. Teams need to be able to build a level of trust to enable them to handle productive conflict. Only by truly challenging one another around ideas can we make the best decisions and build true commitment to carrying out the work that lies ahead. Upon that commitment, we can build the accountability that leads to the best overall results for the group.

It is evident that Lincoln was up to the task of embracing differing voices and building trust among this “team of rivals.” This allowed for the conflict around ideas and commitment to the path decided upon to get to the best outcomes for the country.

I heartily recommend the book by Kearns as a study in bringing the strength of differing, challenging viewpoints to a team to allow the best ideas to come to fruition.

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Evans Kerrigan

Evans Kerrigan works tirelessly in both corporate and public sectors as a dynamic business consultant, presenter, and coach. With over 30 years of experience working with multi-national organizations such as Cisco, Sun Blue Cross Blue Shield, BP, State of Arizona and King County Washington, Evans has been at the forefront of change management--building healthy organizations and creating great places to work. His contributions to these organizations have been credited with increasing employee engagement scores, dramatic reductions in costs and improvement in efficiencies and revenue, resulting in improved operational excellence.