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Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips

June 23, 2020


  • Lincoln stood for all that was right, honest, and self-evident.
  • The foundation of Abraham Lincoln‘s leadership style was an unshakable commitment to the rights of the individual.
  • The genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their follower’s values and motivations.
  • The most important influences on the shaping of leaders lie almost wholly in their early years.
  • A strong attachment to one parent coupled with some intensively negative attachment to the other.
  • In addition to the complex relationship many distinguished leaders have had with their parents, Burns notes several other similarities. Many experienced some form of tragedy while still very young.
  • Virtually all of the outstanding leaders Burns studied were “subject to feelings of insecurity and lack of self-esteem.
  • Moreover, most developed a dynamic will to succeed, a driving ambition that lasted their entire lives.
  • Qualities such as honesty and integrity, empathy for the common man, and devotion to the rights of individuals were products of his upbringing.
  • He learned to express himself and demonstrate to others his beliefs and thoughts. Most importantly, he refined his ability to persuade, direct, and motivate people.
  • He is, in fact, the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
  • The first Republican president was elected by a minority of the popular vote.



Chapter 1

  • Whatever the label, it’s simply the process of stepping out and interacting with people, of establishing human contact.
  • “Leading is primarily paying attention.”
  • Lincoln realized that people were a major source of information and that to be a good leader he had to stay close to them. Without question, Lincoln’s visibility and open-door policy as president constitute an exemplary model for effective leadership.
  • Spent 75% of his time meeting with people.
  • For Lincoln, casual contact with his subordinates was as important as formal gatherings, if not more so, and today’s leaders should take note of this style. He preferred, whenever possible, to interact with people when they were in a more relaxed, less pressure-packed environment.
  • Lincoln was probably the most accessible chief executive the United States has ever known.
  • “…Public opinion baths…”
  • If subordinates, or people in general, know that they genuinely have easy access to their leader, they’ll tend to view the leader in a more positive, trustworthy light.
  • One key element that shouldn’t be overlooked in Lincoln’s style, and that was his amiability.
  • “He is the very embodiment of good temper and affability…”
  • He knew that people like to be complimented, that they enjoy sincere praise as well as talking and hearing about themselves.
  • Affability, flattery, and a pleasant demeanor go hand in hand with human contact.
  • In order to make timely and reliable decisions, Lincoln needed access to information. Basically, he relied on three major sources: reports from trusted confidants and advisors; his practice of going to the field; and the modern communication technology of the age, the telegraph.
  • Nor is there any question that he won battles and saved countless lives by acting swiftly and decisively.
  • Lincoln was constantly seeking key intelligence, so he could make quick, timely, and effective decisions.
  • One of the most effective ways to gain acceptance of a philosophy is to show it in your daily actions.
  • Lincoln Principles:
    • Explain yourself in writing and offer advice on how to solve problems.
    • It is important that the people know you come among them without fear.
    • Seek casual contact with your subordinates. It is as meaningful as a formal gathering, if not more so.
    • Don’t often decline to see people who call on you.
    • Take public opinion baths
    • Be the very embodiment of good temper and affability.
    • Remember, everyone likes a compliment.
    • If your subordinates can stand you, so can you. Set a good example.
    • You must seek and require access to reliable and up-to-date information.


Chapter 2

  • He wanted to know how his people would respond in any given situation
  • Recent studies in the field of leadership recognize and stress the need for building strong interpersonal relationships and bonds.
  • “Attention is all there is…”
  • Abraham Lincoln listened, paid attention, and established trust. He worked hard at forging strong relationships with all of his subordinates, especially the members of his cabinet and his commanding generals.
  • Simply spending time together and getting to know one’s subordinates can overcome mountains of personal differences and hard feelings. If followers learn that their leader is firm, resolute, and committed in the daily performance of his duty, respect can be gained, and trust will soon follow.
  • The lesson to be learned here is to simply not give up attempting to build solid alliances. For every failed attempt like the relationship with McClellan, there may be two successful ones like Steward and Stanton.
  • If you stay in touch with the people who comprise the foundation, you’re more likely to gain an advantage that helps you to win the war against stiff competition. It’s the people who are closest to the consumer and the product who know how to win. And, almost always, they will want to offer their ideas.
  • “Plain common sense, a Kindly disposition, a straightforward purpose, and a shrewd perception of the ins and outs of poor, weak human nature”
  • “Have enabled him to master difficulties which would have swamped any other man.”
  • People are much more likely to trust a leader if they know he is compassionate and forgiving of mistakes.
  • The most important asset a business organization has is its employees. So why not spend some time and money striving to more thoroughly understand what makes your people tick?
  • Lincoln Principles
    • Wage only one war at a time.
    • Spend time letting your followers know that you are firm, resolute, and committed in the daily performance of your duty. Doing so will gain their respect and trust.
    • Etiquette and personal dignity are sometimes wisely set aside.
    • Invest time and money in better understanding the ins and outs of human nature.
    • Remember, human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.
    • Showing your compassionate and caring nature will aid you in forging successful relationships.
    • When you extinguish hope, you create desperation.
    • You must remember that people who have not even been suspected of disloyalty are very averse to taking an oath of any sort as a condition of exercising an ordinary right of citizenship.


Chapter 3

  • Leadership, by definition, omits the use of coercive power. When a leader begins to coerce his followers, he’s essentially abandoning leadership and embracing dictatorship.  Lincoln rejected the dictatorial role by becoming a persuader-delegator in substance, style, and philosophy.
  • He treated people the way he would want to be treated, the way he knew others wanted to be treated.
  • No one wants to be forced to do something against his/her will. People generally want to believe that what they’re doing truly makes a difference and, more important, that it is their own idea.
  • “No man is good enough to govern another man without the others consent”
  • Lincoln attempted to gain commitment from individuals through openness, empowerment, and coaching.
  • He told his cabinet members that “in questions affecting the whole country there should be full and frequent consultations and that nothing should be done particularly affecting and department without consultation with the head of that department.
  • Abraham Lincoln knew the value of making requests as opposed to issuing orders.
  • With today’s employees wanting more than monetary and tangible rewards, leaders need to use different persuasive tactics than the traditional “stick and carrot” approach. Understanding the nuances of various positions and building rapport with a variety of workers allows you to take the most effective path to success without damaging relationships.
  • Lincoln Principles
    • Discourage formal grievances. Persuade your subordinates to compromise whenever you can.
    • Use force only as a last resort.
    • Remember that your followers generally want to believe that what they do is their own idea and, more importantly, that it genuinely makes a difference.
    • If you would win a subordinate to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.
    • Seek the consent of your followers for you to lead them.
    • If you practice dictatorial leadership, you prepare yourself to be dictated to.
    • Delegate responsibility and authority by empowering people to act on their own. 
    • On issues that affect your entire organization, conduct full and frequent consultations with the heads of your various departments.
    • A good leader avoids issuing orders, preferring to request, imply, or make suggestions.



Chapter 4

  • Abraham Lincoln’s reputation for honesty and integrity, even though challenged over the years, has remained unblemished.
  • Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing,”
  • “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.”
  • As a rule, leaders must set and respond to fundamental goals and values that move their followers. In addition to being much-needed moral standards, values tend to be motives by which subordinates act and react. The possession and preaching of wide-ranging, appealing goals and values will result in broad support from the masses.
  • Any successful organization, whether a business or a country, must possess strong shared values.
  • It is the sole responsibility of the leader to instill these values by constant preaching and persuasion. It is the leader’s role to lift followers out of their everyday selves up to a higher level of awareness, motivation, and commitment.
  • He would help others climb the ladder of success with patience, trust, and respect.
  • Trust, honesty, and integrity are exceedingly important qualities because they so strongly affect followers.
  • Lincoln always did the right thing, or at least he attempted to do so. He simply did not deal with people he knew to be dishonest.
  • Lincoln Principles
    • Give your subordinates a fair chance with equal freedom and opportunity for success.
    • When you make it to the top, turn and reach down for the person behind you.
    • You must set, and respond to, fundamental goals and values that move your followers.
    • You must be consistently fair and decent, in both the business and the personal side of life.
    • Stand with anybody who stands right. Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.
    • Never add the weight of your character to a charge against a person without knowing it to be true.
    • It is your duty to advance the aims of the organization and also to help those who serve it.
    • If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.


Chapter 5

  • Followers in virtually every organization respond better to, and will more easily be led by, a leader who consistently displays kindness and empathy than one who is associated with vindictiveness or animosity.
  • He actively encouraged innovative thinking and the participation of subordinates.
  • Whenever he had doubts, and there must have been many, he fell back on the foundation of his personality: honesty, integrity, compassion, and mercy. He seemed to have virtually no feelings of hate, vindictiveness, or malice.
  • Invariably an organization takes on the personality of its top leader, providing that individual is in touch with the members of the organization. If the leader is petty, the subordinates will be petty. But if the leader is encouraging, optimistic, and courteous, then the vast majority of the workers in the organization will be as well.


Chapter 6

  • He had faith and confidence in himself and didn’t need ego-stroking or constant reinforcement to know that this course of action was proper.
  • Every man of courage must, sooner or later, deal with unjust criticism.
  • Throughout much of his life, Lincoln was the object of jealously, envy, and malice. This was largely the result of his burning desire for achievement, which motivated him to excel.
  • As a result, he had great compassion for others who were subjected to the same treatment.
  • Lincoln handled defamation in several different ways. Most often, he would simply ignore the attacks.
  • Even though he would become very weary and discouraged by all the attacks upon him, when it came right down to it, he normally would not retaliate against his detractors.
  • Lincoln became toughened to the world of political misrepresentation. He had the courage to carry with him to the White House his main strategy of simply ignoring slander and vilification.
  • “As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I cannot properly offer an answer.”
  • However, on occasion Lincoln would stand up and defend himself to any and all detractors, especially if the false accusation was particularly damaging to the public’s view of his principles.
  • “I have found that it is not entirely safe, when one is misrepresented under his very nose, to allow the misrepresentation to go uncontradicted.”
  • Lincoln attempted to avoid provocation whenever possible by looking at the humorous side of any potentially hazardous situation.
  • In addition to humor, Lincoln’s strength was enhanced by his ability to perceive reality and deal with it accordingly.
  • “The pioneers in any movement are not generally the best people to carry that movement to a successful issue. They often have to meet such hard opposition, and get so battered and bespattered, that afterward, when people find they have to accept reform, they will accept it more easily from others.
  • “It often requires more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong”
  • “He who has the right needs not to fear”
  • “Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.”
  • You must have stamina, fortitude, and self-confidence. You must believe in yourself. But, in addition, a certain style and routine must be developed in dealing with harsh criticism.
  • Ignore most of the attacks if they are petty but fight back when they are important enough to make a difference.


Chapter 7

  • Leader’s magical qualities: an emotional bond between the leader and the led; dependence on a father figure by the masses; popular assumptions that a leader is powerful, omniscient, and virtuous; imputation of enormous supernatural power to leaders (or secular power, or both); and simply popular support for a leader that verges on love.
  • There were, in fact, numerous paradoxes in Lincolns leadership style. For instance, he tended to be strikingly flexible while at the same time a model of consistency.
  • Lincoln would always leave “an opportunity for a change of mind.”
  • Lincoln showed his mastery of paradox by skillfully providing a rock-solid, stable government as a foundation for the nation’s security, while at the same time personally instituting massive amounts of change.
  • While Lincoln was able to capitalize on his own strengths, he was also able to recognize his shortcomings, compensate for them, and play down his darker side.
  • All human beings have their weaknesses, but not all of us realize them, come to grips with them, or offset their negative impact.
  • “Let minor differences, and personal preferences, if there be such; go to the winds.”
  • Understanding, as well as coming to grips with the darker side of your personality, is key to dealing with real-life situations.
  • Corporate leaders of the future will have to provide employee security while also encouraging an environment for risk-taking. At times it will seem like walking a delicate tightrope.



Chapter 8

  • He also greatly expanded the limits of American presidential authority and power. In fact, even though it was not his original intention, he practically redefined the presidency while, at the same time, notably revising the American constitutional system.
  • In truth, he was so decisive that he left virtually no stone unturned. He took advantage of nearly every situation at hand. Confusion, desperation, and urgency all combined to give Lincoln the perfect opportunity to act.
  • On one hand, Lincoln wanted his generals to take action on their own; on the other, he would not allow them to dictate policy, which he deemed should come only from him.
  • Lincoln could also be decisive and tough with his direct subordinates when he was forced to do so.
  • Lincoln often accepted the aggravation and exasperation caused by subordinates if they did their jobs competently.
  • “Well, I’m not in favor of crushing anybody out!”
  • He did not hesitate once he was convinced that swift action had to take place. However, it is certain that for every crucial decision of his administration Lincoln thought things out well in advance.
  • Like Lincoln, the best, most decisive leaders are those who have a set purpose and the self-confidence to accomplish that objective.
  • In a corporation with decisive leaders the atmosphere is dynamic and vibrant. People move with a spring in their step and purpose in their direction. Opportunity seeks out the company, and the well-focused firm – one backed by a solid vision and well thought out goals – almost always succeeds.


Chapter 9

  • Even though he often conferred with his advisors on important matters, using them as sounding boards, it is clear that Lincoln made most of the crucial decisions during his term in office.
  • As Lao Tzu said: “Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘we did this to ourselves’
  • Lincoln also had the enviable quality of being able to listen to people and be guided by them without being threatened himself.
  • Rather than ordering or dictating, Lincoln refined his ability to direct others by implying, hinting, or suggesting.
  • Frequently, getting people together can avoid destructive thinking that tends to build on people’s misgivings and apprehensions about others and their departments.
  • To always give credit where credit was due and, conversely, to accept responsibility when things went wrong. Not only did this satisfy Lincoln’s need for honesty, integrity, and human dignity; it also gave his subordinates the correct perception that they were, in many ways, doing the leading, not Lincoln.
  • If leaders do enough of this – if they praise good work and encourage more of the same – then eventually they will be able to relax and let their subordinates do most of the work.
  • He gave people the impression that they were leading him. And, in fact, he did give many of his subordinates the lead. But he always exerted some control. He stayed informed of their activity. When their ideas and actions matched his general direction and if he thought that there was merit in the means to achieve the overall goal, Lincoln let his subordinates follow through. However, if they were deviating from the proper path, Lincoln guided them back on course. And when the means were inadequate to achieve the goal, he tended to talk them out of it or, when necessary, use his power to overrule.


Chapter 10

  • Leaders, in general, are self-starting and change-oriented. They set a strategic direction and initiate as well as act. They achieve results as opposed to only carrying out activity.
  • Lincoln’s ambition, wrote Herndon, “was a little engine that knew no rest.”
  • He was a tireless worker, campaigner, and public speaker.
  • Lincoln’s unyielding drive and aggressiveness was part of his genetic makeup. It was a personal quality, one characteristic of many great leaders.
  • Without question, Abraham Lincoln “thirsted” and “burned” for distinction. Yet, even though he often became depressed at failure and setbacks, Lincoln developed the enviable ability to persevere and learn from his own failures.
  • Establishing goals and gaining their acceptance from subordinates is crucial for effective leadership.
  • Lincoln realized that the attainment of a successful outcome had to be accomplished in steps. So, he constantly set specific short-term goals that his generals and cabinet members could focus on with intent and immediacy.
  • Lincoln demonstrated extraordinary perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and interpersonal clashes. Lincoln did not shun conflict. Instead he resolved dissension among his subordinates in a timely manner, knowing full well that it could serve only to further delay progress.
  • Effective leaders are “reliable and tirelessly persistent” and that they are “the most results-oriented people in the world.”
  • No one should have to worry about lighting a fire under great leaders. They don’t need it if they are like Lincoln. His fire was always burning.


Chapter 11

  • He began a quest that all leaders must embark on. He started looking for a chief subordinate who craves responsibility, is a risk-taker, and, most importantly, makes things happen.
  • If your chief subordinates do not move and get the job going, then you should act decisively and without hesitation.
  • Set the tone and give your people a message. If your followers see you leading the fight, just as Lincoln took Norfolk, there will be no mistaking what you want them to do.
  • When a subordinate is not performing adequately, rather than firing the person outright, some responsibility and authority are removed in the hope that the individual will be able to perform better with fewer responsibilities. Fairness and human dignity are preserved when this first step is employed; it gives the unsatisfactory performer a chance to “turn it around.” If behavior and performance are not reversed, the next step is to get the individual out of the decision-making process as much as possible.
  • Many contemporary corporate executives also give their new chief supervisors a grace period. It’s usually called a “honeymoon” and lasts about six months, in which the new manager gets to do just about anything, within reason. Furthermore, the top executive will generally advise his new leader to simply listen for the first three months or so and then make changes.
  • If your chief executive’s subordinates complain, let the executive know about the complaints. This is only fair. He may not know that people are disenchanted, and it will give him time to correct the problem. However, Lincoln would also be the first to say that if you determine that the complaints are true, and nothing changes, it’s appropriate to remove the supervisor, especially if he’s not doing his job properly.
  • All leaders should realize that they can’t do everything on their own. They simply must have people below them who will do what is necessary to ensure success. Those subordinates who will take risks, act without waiting for direction, and ask for responsibility rather than reject it, should be treated as your most prized possessions. Such individuals are exceedingly rare and worth their weight in gold.


Chapter 12

  • He adopted a “more than one way to skin a cat” attitude and would not be consumed with methodology.
  • Lincoln’s obsessive quest for results tended to create a climate for risk-taking and innovation.
  • Lincoln had great tolerance for failure because he knew that if his generals were not making mistakes they were not moving.
  • Rather than surround himself with “yes” men, he associated with people who really knew their business, people from whom he could learn something, whether they were antagonistic or not.
  • The best leaders never stop learning. They possess a special capacity to be taught by those with whom they come into contact.
  • He is the only U.S. president to have secured patent.
  • A leader’s ability to develop innovative ideas and ask for people to help in implementing them may seem to be obvious keys to success. But the sad fact is that too many of today’s leaders resign themselves to the limits imposed on them by flawed systems rather than rethinking those systems.
  • He realized that, as an executive leader, it was his chief responsibility to create the climate of risk-free entrepreneurship necessary to foster effective innovation.



Chapter 13

  • “He never considered anything he had written to be finished until published, or if a speech, until he delivered it.” Lincoln’s most famous speeches were exhaustively researched, analyzed, and practiced.
  • Even though he thoroughly prepared many of his addresses, it appears that Lincoln possessed a true gift when it came to communicating his feelings and emotions.
  • As president, Lincoln was an intelligent communicator. He was careful about what he said, and he thought before he spoke.
  • James MacGregor Burns wrote that “the Leader’s fundamental act is to induce people to be aware or conscious of what they feel – to feel their true needs so strongly, to define their values so meaningfully, that they can be moved to purposeful action.”
  • Messages are more often “heard” when the communicator is honest, sincere, and succinct. In other words, say what you mean, and mean what you say.


Chapter 14

  • Though Abraham Lincoln was an outstanding writer and public speaker, he was even more adept at the art of conversation. He could talk to anyone.
  • Recent work in the field of leadership confirms Lincoln’s strategy and emphasizes the role of stories as powerful motivational tools that spread loyalty, commitment, and enthusiasm. “All leadership is show business,” wrote Peters and Austin. “It turns out that human beings reason largely by means of stories, not by mounds of data. Stories are memorable… They teach…
  • In most business organizations, private conversation is much more important than public speaking. It provides direct contact with the individuals who are actually performing the work. Chatting informally with one or two employees will allow the leader to pick up more subtle nuances of how people actually feel and think. And loyalty is more often won through such personal contact than in any other way.


Chapter 15

  • Organizations prosper or die as a result of their leader’s ability to embody and communicate the company’s vision.
  • Lincoln provided grass-roots leadership. Everywhere he went, at every conceivable opportunity, he reaffirmed, reasserted, and reminded everyone of the basic principles upon which the nation was founded. His vision was simple, and he preached it often.
  • If the working troops understand what is expected of them and what the organization is trying to accomplish, then it becomes possible to make important decisions on lower levels, thereby creating a climate in which results and progress continually occur.
  • Over time, as values decay and incentives dwindle, leaders must constantly provide a rejuvenating process.
  • All leaders should remind subordinates why their organization was formed in the first place.



  • He is the perfect example of what James MacGregor Burns termed a “transforming leader” – a person who aims for the evolution of a new level of awareness and understanding among all members of an organization. Such a leader rejects the use of naked power and instead attempts to motivate and mobilize followers by persuading them to take ownership of their roles in a more grand mission that is shared by all members of the organization.
  • Lincoln knew that true leadership is often realized by exerting quiet and subtle influence on a day-to-day basis, by frequently seeing followers and other people face to face. He treated everyone with the same courtesy and respect, whether they were kings or commoners. He lifted people out of their everyday selves and into a higher level of performance, achievement, and awareness. He obtained extraordinary results from ordinary people by instilling purpose in their endeavors. He was open, civil, tolerant, and fair, and he maintained a respect for the dignity of all people at all times.