Lessons from Honest Abe

Today, I had the privilege of interacting with a group of honors business students on an assigned book written by Donald Phillips titled: Lincoln on Leadership: Executive images-1Strategies for Tough Times. If you have never read this short book that analyzes the leadership traits of Abraham Lincoln as he juggled the crises of the Civil War—you must—it’s a classic in my opinion.

There are a number of things that make this little book on Lincoln so special. First, many people identify Lincoln as one of America’s most popular U.S. presidents and thus he has been the subject of many books. Surprisingly though, according to the author, there have been few books that have carefully analyzed Lincoln’s leadership approach and style. Second, the author does a fantastic job using Lincoln as a case study to apply many leadership theories. A final gem of this book is the author’s portrayal of Lincoln’s leadership style as he managed both people and events in leading the country during pivotal historical events associated with the Civil War.

Although Phillips’ book is divided into four parts, the second section of this book addresses Lincoln’s Character. Like so many great leaders, Phillips notes, the bedrock of Lincoln’s character rested on three overlapping and highly interdependent values: Trust, Honesty, & Integrity.

Trust, honesty, and integrity are core and vitally important ingredients to successful interpersonal relationships. These three elements bring and bind people together, especially leaders and followers. Amazingly, the levels of trust, honesty, and integrity between leaders and followers is not as high as most people think. For example, in a recent study examining the level of trust between leaders and followers during crisis moments, less than 20% of respondents indicated they trust leaders to tell the truth when they are confronted with difficult situations or circumstances. According to this study, followers believed that leaders too often sweep-under-the-rug, bend the truth, cut a corner, cover-up, and hide and/or distort the facts, and in doing so, grossly undermine themselves and their relationships with their followers. Unfortunately, when these values are violated by leaders, their relationships deeply suffer. Furthermore, when relationships have experienced broken trust, dishonesty, and a lack of integrity, the ability to fully repair and restore those key relationships is not easy—possibly impossible.

Clearly, Abraham Lincoln knew this. Every day, Lincoln understood, practiced, and protected his leadership credibility by being an exemplary role model of trust, honesty, and integrity. Lincoln valued his name, his reputation, his leadership credibility, and as a result, demonstrated extreme efforts to do the “harder right” than the “easier wrong” in all of his dealings with others. For example, when give the chance to execute Union Army deserters or Confederate combatants, although he possessed every legal and logical reason to order their execution, Lincoln chose to demonstrate forgiveness and leniency. Lincoln understood that had determined that the higher ordered goal of  “preserving and protecting the union,” depended upon demonstrations of unusual grace and mercy. After all, Lincoln reasoned, how could any leader preach “union,” and at the same time, demonstrate actions that supported punishment and harm to those Lincoln deeply wished to restore union with?

As a leader, Lincoln’s actions were definitely different than most. He forgave when he could have punished. His actions weren’t the normal and predictable response. He took the high road every chance he could. He went above-and-beyond what was expected. He was guided by higher-ordered goals and dreams. Lincoln was an admired role model of trust, honesty, and integrity. He stood for something honorable and big.

Lincoln’s approach to leadership and life has a lot to teach us—if we are willing to learn, practice, and commit ourselves to being and doing similar things.

Being BombDiggity requires it!

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