At 4:30 a.m., 150 years ago today, the first cannon shell was fired from Fort Johnson in Charleston Harbor over Fort Sumter beginning the American Civil War. Being a student of history my entire life, this is a rather momentous day for me. The significance of this anniversary has renewed in me a passion for learning more about that time in our country’s history, and in particular, for acquiring a deeper understanding of the pivotal decisions our leaders made at critical times during events leading up to and throughout the Civil War.
As mentioned in a previous post, I recently attended a Road Scholar Program in Gettysburg, PA that examined the battles of Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry. The guides who instructed the program were exceptional at providing us with detailed information about the men who led the troops and the life and death decisions they faced during these conflicts. It absolutely amazes me how many of their decisions, made quickly, under incredible duress and often in the heat of battle, could have easily gone another way, totally altering the course of the war and our country’s history.
I thought in honor of the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I would share with you in this and in upcoming posts, some of the information I’ve learned about these men and the qualities that distinguished them as leaders. While their actions may be part of our past, the lessons they teach are timeless and can help us all to become more effective leaders in the world today.
Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one or our nation’s most extraordinary leaders. His challenges started immediately as his election as president prompted southern states to secede from the union just before his inauguration in 1861. From the beginning he did not enjoy the support of the majority of Americans and his inner circle in government was no exception.
Contrary to popular practice then and today, upon accepting the presidency Lincoln did not fill his key governmental positions with people from only his political party. One of the first ways he demonstrated his exceptional leadership was to appoint many of his adversaries to positions within his new cabinet. In fact, two of the most important cabinet posts went to men who openly criticized the new president.
William Seward, who had been a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, was appointed as Secretary of State. He had fought hard against Lincoln to win the nomination but in the end, lost to what he believe to be a less qualified and incompetent man. Edward Stanton, who had reportedly called Lincoln a “giraffe” after an earlier meeting, was appointed Secretary of War. Even though these men were vocal about their lack of faith in his abilities, Lincoln was able to put their obvious distain aside and select them for these critical positions because he felt despite their opinions; they were the best men for the job.
I wonder how many of us could put aside our hurt feelings to give a former rival a career boost like that and provide them the opportunity to attack us from within our inner circle.
Lincoln was able to use his leadership skills to sway these men and eventually build strong alliances with them. He made a point to spend time with each of them, outside of work often at their homes, getting to know them personally and showing interest in the topics and priorities that were important to them. He paid attention to them when they spoke and did not immediately dismiss their points of view, which were often at odds with his. He listened to their arguments and found ways to incorporate their feelings into his speeches when he later articulated his positions on critical issues. He asked questions to learn about their values and told stories so that they could understand the values that were important to him. It was here that they were able to find common ground.
While he did work hard to build and establish trust with Seward and Stanton, he also had the confidence and conviction to hold a firm line with them when they attempted to circumvent him in order to promote their own agenda or when they tried to usurp his authority. While he involved them in his decision making process and encouraged their feedback, he also made it clear that the final decision was his, and once the course was set, everyone was expected to comply.
Eventually, his efforts to earn their trust and forge bonds with Seward and Stanton would result in both men becoming friend and ally. Over the next couple of years, they became loyal supporters of Lincoln and openly admired him for his integrity and honesty. In fact, Stanton is reported to have been so distraught over Lincoln’s death that he uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Lincoln took the time to get to know his subordinates and seemed to have an innate ability to understand human nature. He easily forgave missteps and understood that sometimes people make mistakes in judgment when driven by passion. He used this knowledge to build alliances, forgive oversights and to encourage cooperation. He understood that his power came from his ability to bring people together for a common goal, and that competing agendas weaken a team’s effectiveness. This is made clear in his remarks to the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858 when he accepted the nomination for the US Senate. He said;
“A house divided against itself cannot stand…Our cause must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends – whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work – who do care for the result.”
Here is a quick recap of the lessons we can learn from Lincoln’s amazing ability to build trust and forge alliances with his skeptics:
- Spend time getting to know your subordinates on a personal level. Find out what their interests and priorities are outside of work.
- Select the right people for the job and be cautious of allowing personal feelings to negatively impact your decisions.
- Find values that you and your subordinate share and use that to build common ground in the relationship which will help when on opposing sides of an issue.
- Never allow your desire to be liked to sway you from doing what you know to be right. Your integrity is not for sale.
- Have fun with your people. Take time to do things outside of work that are enjoyable and help to build camaraderie.
- Encourage feedback and opposing viewpoints, but insist on support once the decision is made.
- Don’t be afraid to forgive and move on. It is not a sign of weakness in a leader; it is a sign of strength.
I hope you use the skills and qualities Lincoln possessed to become a more impactful leader yourself. As always, I welcome any comments or thoughts regarding this post.