Life of Abraham Lincoln continues to hold lessons for today's leaders

29 June 2018 4 min. read
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Consistently ranked as the best US president, Abraham Lincoln’s life holds a number of lessons for today’s leaders. In the McKinsey Quarterly, Harvard professor Nancy Koehn relates a number of leadership strengths exhibited by Lincoln, including his ability to discern important elements, frame the stakes, and neutralize critics, as well as his sheer willpower.

The world is always in need of effective, decent leaders, whether in the arena of politics or in business. In looking to sources for inspiration, leadership coaches and commentators will turn to the great figures of history who led throughout times of supreme consequence, stakes, and turbulence – the Churchills, Roosevelts, and Eisenhowers. Often topping the list of inspiring leaders in America is Abraham Lincoln, who maintained the Union through the Civil War and abolished slavery. Lincoln frequently tops various rankings of the best US presidents in history.

But what are some of the specific leadership lessons that we can draw from Lincoln’s much-studied life and accomplishments? In McKinsey & Company’s most recent issue of its Quarterly magazine, Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn distills a number of lessons Lincoln offers for leaders in today’s transformative era.

One useful lesson relates to Lincoln’s penchant for effective discernment. When he was practicing as a lawyer back in Illinois, Lincoln was especially skilled when presenting his case before a jury. Specifically, Koehn says, he was able to draw the jury’s attention to the few most essential points of a case while conceding the more trivial issues to the opposing counsel. Likewise, effective leaders need to be able to identify the one to three essential issues facing them and let the rest go. According to Koehn, this allows leaders to concentrate on the most central issues, identifying that which is ‘mission critical’ while acknowledging that they can’t do everything.

Another lesson stems from Lincoln’s ability to ‘frame the stakes’ of an enterprise. In his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln identified the survival of the US’ mission statement of democracy and equality with the ‘unfinished work’ of defeating the South and winning the Civil War. According to Lincoln, this was worth striving for despite the trade-offs of bloody war, death, and privation. For leaders today, Koehn relates that it is critically important to connect current change efforts to the past and future of the enterprise, and explain the costs in relation to the ultimate goal.Lincoln's lessons for leaders loom largeAnother lesson is to abandon the quest for a single definitive answer to a problem. Lincoln had no simple, ‘silver bullet’ to save the Union, according to Koehn. As the war dragged on, he realized there was no single way to end it. For modern leaders under pressure to move quickly and make big impacts, the reality is that there is also no easy solution. Koehn says leaders should instead focus on the many possible avenues and actions needed to make a meaningful difference.

Lincoln was also able to identify and neutralize powerful critics when necessary. In the bloody aftermath of Gettysburg, many Northern elites were calling for a settlement with the Confederates that acknowledged the legality of slavery. Lincoln sent a letter to his friend James Conkling to read at a meeting of Union supporters in Illinois. At its core, Lincoln asked in the letter whether they were for the Union; if they didn’t want to continue fighting, but also didn’t want to dissolve the Union, then the only option remaining was compromise. However, Lincoln wrote that there was no way to compromise and maintain the Union, so the only option was to continue fighting the war to its completion.

For modern leaders, it is important to address the fear and arguments that impede transformation initiatives. Rather than ignoring the concerns of elites, Lincoln addressed their arguments and explained his actions in terms of his larger purpose. Likewise, modern leaders should be ready to address naysayers with effective communication to neutralize threats to change initiatives instead of just reiterating talking points and ignoring cogent criticisms.

Lincoln also provided one of history’s great examples of willpower. As the war dragged on into the summer of 1864, morale began to collapse in the North, and pressure began to mount on Lincoln to give up on the critical point of emancipation in potential peace terms with the South. Lincoln even drafted a letter to a newspaper that opened up the possibility of peace without an end to slavery in the South.

In the end, however, Lincoln didn’t send the letter and remained committed to emancipation as an essential condition of peace negotiations. Koehn relates that Lincoln’s willpower and ability to stay true to his goals were among his greatest strengths as a leader. Faced by pressure from within and without, America’s most admired president didn’t back down.

In an unjust coda befitting of tragedy, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth during the performance of a play. Lincoln, though, had already left his mark on the US, having guided the country through the bloodiest period of its existence. His uncommon moral fortitude, rejection of ethical callousness, and consideration of how his actions would affect those with little agency as well as future generations are things today’s leaders should aspire to emulate, according to Koehn.