Team of Rivals

I just finished “reading” Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I use quotes because I listened to the book on Audible…all 41 hours of it!!

While the subtitle of the book is “The political genius of Abraham Lincoln” you could easily replace ‘political’ with the word ‘leadership.’ 

Lincoln was an incredible leader.

The book is a thorough yet fascinating dive into the life of Lincoln and the close and complicated relationship he had with the men who made up his political cabinet. His rise to presidential power and the unfolding of the agonizing and bloody years of civil war are only a dramatic backdrop to the incredible story of Lincoln’s leadership brilliance.

On the eve of the birthday of the United States, I think it’s fitting to look at some of the lessons from Lincoln’s leadership, and, hopefully, learn from them for our day!

  1. Lincoln embraced tension. Andy Stanley talks about knowing the difference between a tension to manage and a problem to solve. Lincoln was the master at living in the tensions that so many around him wanted solved. The points of tension were many in Lincoln’s day: a divided country (literally), a new and splintered Republican party, successionist sentiment among border states and within many departments of the federal government, conflicts with military leadership, and varied and vocal opinions among members of his own cabinet…just to name a few! Lincoln had the incredible ability to sit uncomfortably, and often alone, in the tension of issues others saw as black and white problems to be solved.
  2. Lincoln was tenaciously patient. We often think of patience as a passive and meek thing, but the patience of Lincoln was an active and bold endeavor. It took guts to be as slow and deliberate and reflective as Lincoln often was. Even back then the news media pushed for immediate responses to any number of issues. General McClellan was a Napoleon-esqe military diva who constantly disobeyed orders from Lincoln and arguably cost the union dearly in financial and human capital. But Lincoln, knowing the leadership of his armies and the safety of the nation was his chief concern, did not rush to judgment and worked slowly and methodically to come to the conclusion that McClellan must go.
  3. Lincoln was humble. A more arrogant leader would have easily used the power of his office to humiliate his opponents and silence opposition, but that wasn’t Lincoln’s style. He was driven by a personal humility and a profound love for the country he led. A more arrogant leader could have sent away all the office seekers who came to call, but he rarely did. He left his doors open, he made time for most everyone. Even in one of the ugliest disputes when he learned his Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase, was secretly launching his own bid to run against Lincoln in the next presidential election, Lincoln was never bitter, he never held a grudge. Throughout his days in the swamp of Washington, he never lost his unassuming, relatable, down to earth persona cultivated over many years as a prairie lawyer in Illinois.
  4. Lincoln never isolated himself from differing opinions and never isolated those who shared them. Far from being a group of “yes men” carelessly heaping empty praise on their leader, Lincoln’s cabinet was truly a team of rivals. While this was a political move for sure, in order to solidify support from various groups of the loosely connected Republican party, it was also a solid leadership decision. If the move had ended with politics he could have isolated the members he disagreed with and just kept them as a trophy, but Lincoln didn’t do that. Instead of creating warring factions, Lincoln created a family. He created a family where differences could be voiced and yet community could remain. The intense brotherly bond that Lincoln fostered among his cabinet members was a witness to the kind of unity in diversity that the country as a whole needed so desperately to see modeled (and still needs today).
  5. Lincoln knew when to hunker down and stand his ground. When he had made up his mind, Lincoln stood by his decision even in the face of incredible outside pressure. This rang most true after his decision to free the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. He listened to outside advice but even when many thought it was a dangerous precedent and could cost the loyalty of the border states, Lincoln stood by his decision and waited patiently for the right time to announce it to the country.

The leadership genius of Abraham Lincoln was not perfect, but his faithful witness should be an enduring reminder to those of us who follow: to embrace tension, to be patient, to be humble, to foster friendship among factions, to stand for what you believe, and, in the end, to sacrifice everything for the greater good of peace, unity, and freedom for all.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. – Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865

2 Replies to “Team of Rivals”

  1. Great reflections for the political season in which we live! I wish our leaders would reflect more of Lincoln’s leadership wisdom!

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