The Blog

by Jim Copacino

Abe Lincoln, CEO


If you read one management text this year, I’d suggest a history book: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a compelling biography of Abraham Lincoln focusing on the management of his cabinet during the Civil War years. Goodwin’s book takes us deep inside Lincoln’s challenges and triumphs.

He was nominated at the Republican national convention in 1860 as a compromise candidate. His better-known and better-financed opponents—Seward, Chase and Bates—cancelled one another out. Lincoln rose from relative obscurity to the presidency during the most perilous time in America’s history.

Over the next four years, he performed brilliantly as the nation’s CEO.

As president-elect, he convinced his Republican rivals to join his cabinet. Each felt himself superior to the humble and self-effacing Lincoln—and each accepted his appointment with the certainty that he would act as the de facto president. But over time, all were won over by Lincoln’s intellect, political acumen and compassionate nature. Now, nearly 150 years later, Lincoln’s legacy provides valuable lessons in management training:

Hire well, set goals, avoid micro management
Lincoln surrounded himself with powerful, accomplished and self-confident personalities. He set the course for his administration, but delegated broad powers to his appointees.

Credit others for success, assume responsibility for failure.
Lincoln was quick to applaud others when things went well on the battlefield or in government. But he stood alone in accepting responsibility for setbacks.

Be firm in mission, flexible in strategy.
Lincoln’s mission was to preserve the union. He entered the White House willing to support slavery if it meant keeping the nation intact. However, he grew to see slavery as a political impossibility and a moral wrong. He shifted his strategy in service to his ultimate goal.

Use the power of language to lead and inspire.
Lincoln was one of the great literary presidents. He framed arguments in simple but elegant prose that still speaks to “our better angels.”

Malice toward none, charity to all.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lincoln was his refusal to harbor ill will toward others, regardless of how deeply they hurt or betrayed him.

Humor as a management tool.
Lincoln loved storytelling and jokes, using them as a way to defuse conflict and lift spirits. His humor was homespun, self-deprecating and an effective way to communicate larger truths.

Step aside Jack Welch and Steve Jobs. Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the greatest CEO in American history.